Still Life by Sarah Winman

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I saw this book reviewed on BBC2’s Between the Covers, a book programme hosted by Sara Cox in which each week four guests join her to discuss their favourite books of all time and new books recently published. Last week they discussed Sarah Winman’s Still Life and I was hooked enough by what they said to order a copy immediately.

The reviewers all loved the book but it wasn’t just this that attracted me, but the theme of art and its meaning in our life, and the setting – of most of the novel – in Florence, Italy. The story begins in war-torn Europe in 1944 when a young British soldier, Ulysses Temper, meets Evelyn Skinner, an art historian, who has come to Italy to help save important artwork. Their meeting is brief but makes a huge impact on them both. This isn’t a story of romantic love between them but that visceral attraction we can feel towards another instantly; it’s about feeling a deep connection and seeing the world through the eyes of someone else and it changing us for ever. Evelyn is much older than Ulysses and gay; he is in love with the wife who will never return his love in the same way but their connection also runs deep enough for them to remain important people in each others’ lives, even once they’ve divorced.

I was pleased one of the TV reviewers said it took them a while to get into the book, for after the short beginning in 1944 Italy, the story moves to London’s East End where Ulysses has returned to take up his former life, and keep going his father’s business making beautiful globes. These aren’t the kind of cheap globes you buy kids to teach them geography, these are works of art, thus this is also another connection to Evelyn. Back home, wife Peg has had a baby – Alys – with an American soldier who seems to have deserted her – a theme of longing and the heartache of unrequited love that runs throughout the book. But Ulysses remains a friend, a rock, and another rock to them all is old Cress. Ulysses lives above Col’s pub; Col’s drinking and violence have caused his wife to leave and his instability rages throughout the story, but underneath his love for all those around him makes them continue to care about him.

This London period is when the characters are gathered – Ulysses, Peg, Alys, Col, Cress and piano Pete – and we witness the strong bond that ties them together. It was here that my interest waned a bit though before the big change: Ulysses inherits a large apartment in Florence. It has been left to him by Arturo, who in 1944 he rescued from a suicide attempt. Should he sell the apartment or go back to Florence? Uncertain at first, he then sets off with Cress in an old van, and with Alys. Peg finds motherhood too hard, cannot get over the pain of her daughter’s likeness to the missing father. Ulysses has become a father to Alys and so he takes her. They also take Claude, the parrot that lives in the pub and is constantly abused by Col but loved by all. Once in Florence, it soon becomes apparent they will stay, this will be their new home.

Florence brings new characters: Massimo the lawyer who handled Arturo’s will and is to become a close friend; Michele who runs the local restaurant. A whole cast of characters. Meanwhile, Evelyn is back lecturing in London but she hasn’t forgotten Ulysses. She comes to Florence a few times, the city she loves, and their paths almost cross but not quite. It will take many years before they are reunited. As Alys grows she shows huge talent as an artist, returns to London to art school, is touched by Evelyn’s lecturing, but the connection to Ulysses is not yet made …

There are a lot of coincidences, there is a lot of magic. In many ways the book is a fairy tale for the characters are larger than life and even the parrot talks – not just repeating words but words of wisdom; trees talk too. Ulysses’ inheritance is a kind of fairy tale; Cress has vivid visions of the future that result in him being able to place bets on, for example, Geoff Hurst getting a hat trick in the 1966 football World Cup, that make a huge amount of money but he’s also the source of spiritual wisdom and he tells them at one point that he was once a friar.

The years go by, loves are found and lost, friends are made. Florence has become Ulysses’ home and he opens a workshop to make globes again. It’s not until the great flood of 1966 that almost destroys Florence, that Ulysses and Evelyn are finally reunited: not as lovers but soul mates.

I ended up loving the book. Yes the characters are a little unreal; their experiences rely so often on convenient coincidence not to mention that magic I mentioned. But they are real to the reader in the sense that you come to really care about them. And the writing is beautiful with some glorious descriptions of Florence and life there. Winman adopts a conversational style that creates an intimacy with the reader and also a sense of wonder – just as every good fairy tale should do. It is a book about love of all kinds; of the deep bonds of friendship; the wonder of life and the unknown aspect of it. There is a spiritual, metaphysical dimension.

For me, it was also a delight to read a book set in Florence that centred around my favourite part of the city – Santo Spirito, in Oltrarno, the other side of the River Arno to the famous sites, a more bohemian area. I recognised the names of piazzas and roads and bridges, even the famous gelateria, Vivoli. Winman’s knowledge of food is superb and this also appealed. I could picture Piazza Santo Spirito so clearly, where my favourite restaurant, a simple Osteria, is the place I always want to head to first to eat (see my food & travel blog post: click here).

It was one of those books that will keep you up late at night and you are so sad when it ends, although memories of it stay with you.

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