Book Review: Still Life – Sarah Winman

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review.

About The Book

We just need to know what the heart’s capable of, Evelyn.
And do you know what it’s capable of?
I do. Grace and fury.

It’s 1944 and in the ruined wine cellar of a Tuscan villa, as the Allied troops advance and bombs fall around them, two strangers meet and share an extraordinary evening together.

Ulysses Temper is a young British solider and one-time globe-maker, Evelyn Skinner is a sexagenarian art historian and possible spy. She has come to Italy to salvage paintings from the ruins and relive her memories of the time she encountered EM Forster and had her heart stolen by an Italian maid in a particular Florentine room with a view.

These two unlikely people find kindred spirits in each other and Evelyn’s talk of truth and beauty plants a seed in Ulysses mind that will shape the trajectory of his life – and of those who love him – for the next four decades.

Moving from the Tuscan Hills, to the smog of the East End and the piazzas of Florence, Still Life is a sweeping, mischievous, richly-peopled novel about beauty, love, family and fate.

My Review

Still Life, by Sarah Winman is an incredibly difficult book to review. I have no idea how I can even do it justice, and, it is one of those books where you need to go in knowing as little as possible. I don’t want to ruin your first read of this quite beautiful book, you need to fall in love with it for yourself so I’ll try and keep details as scant possible and as ever there won’t be any spoilers!

I’ve been hearing nothing but great things about Still Life by Sarah Winman with reviewers I admire writing about how beautiful it is. I adored Winman’s previous novel, Tin Man and couldn’t wait to get stuck in to this hoping it was as good as everybody was saying it was. You know what? It was better. It ricocheted straight into my Top 10 Books Ever list and even though I was lucky enough to be reading an advanced ecopy, I ended up buying the hardback when I wasn’t even halfway through.

It’s about two quite wonderful people, Ulysses Temper and Evelyn Skinner. They meet in Italy as the Allieds advance on Italy during World War 2. He is a young British soldier and she is an aging art expert who is rescuing paintings from the destruction of the war. They spend an evening with Ulysses’ superior, Captain Darnley, drinking very good red wine, talking about, art, life, love and everything in between. Ulysses tells Evelyn about his wife back home, Peg, about his life and she talks about the beauty of art. They form a bond, the sort of bond that comes along very rarely indeed. They say goodbye to one another, each hoping that the other will make it out alive and both feeling changed by their meeting.

This is a glorious book which spans four decades and two countries. It is vividly written with the fog of the London streets leaping from the page whilst the descriptions of Florence, its architecture, art and food made me want to visit immediately. Winman has a real knack for creating a sense of place and time that there were moments when I’d emerge from reading, confused as to why I was sitting in my living room in the North East and wasn’t in a piazza eating pasta and drinking wine.

At its heart though, this character driven novel is about what it means to be human. Ulysses is surrounded by people who love him dearly, Col who is the landlord of the pub Ulysses works in after the war, Cressy, a friend of Ulysses’ father, Pete, the piano player in the pub, Peg and Claude, the pub parrot (yes, you read that correctly!). They are each other’s chosen family, spiralling in and out of each other’s lives as the decades pass but always finding their way back to one another. Fiercely loyal, loving and protective of each other this group of people are an absolute joy to read about. I can’t quite believe that they aren’t real.

The writing is poetic without being bloated and there are wonderful turns of phrases and wry humour which made me smile on more than one occasion. Some passages are so beautiful that they deserved an immediate re-read with evocative descriptions hitting me right in the heart. For example, the “every stain and every oil splash” on the pages of a well-used cookbook are said to be “the equivalent of footprints along a shore” which I thought was just gorgeous.

Still Life by Sarah Winman has ricocheted straight into my Top 10 Books Ever list. It is extraordinarily good and is one of those books where you want to gobble it up but try desperately to eke it out. If you are yet to read it I am incredibly jealous that you get to do so for the first time, you lucky thing, you have such joy ahead of you.

Where You Can Buy It

My thanks to 4th Estate for an advanced copy of the book via Netgalley. Still Life by Sarah Winman is out now in both hardcover and ebook.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Still Life – Sarah Winman

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