Review: Still Life by Sarah Winman (2021)

Still Life by Sarah Winman

Blurb

By the bestselling, prize-winning author of When God was a Rabbit and Tin ManStill Life is a beautiful, big-hearted, richly tapestried story of people brought together by love, war, art, flood… and the ghost of E.M. Forster.

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 is 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 soldier 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, joyful, richly-peopled novel about beauty, love, family and fate.

Review

As a huge fan of Tin Man, Winman’s previous novel, I had Still Life firmly on my bookish radar. I was, therefore, absolutely delighted to win a proof – many thanks to Liv Marsden and 4th Estate Books for my copy.

This is another tough review to write, because this book just meant so much to me. I don’t know Florence well, having only visited briefly, but I know and love Italy, and it was an utter joy to ‘spend time’ there with such an eloquent guide. The sights, sounds, smells are all captured in exquisite prose, and as Winman describes the landscapes, architecture and art works, it begins to feel like more of a sensory experience than a purely literary one. And the food! Never has a book made me so hungry! I could practically taste the papparadelle and ragu – Italian food is my all-time favourite, and this book is mouth-watering.

Underpinning all of this beauty and sensory delight is the sheer joy of spending time with the characters of this book. Each and every one made their way into my heart, and it is the sort of magical novel that makes you ache at the sad fact that these people are fictional. I wanted nothing more than to be in the square listening to Alys strumming her guitar, to see Cressy sitting on the stone bench gossiping with le signore as they chat and knit, to have coffee with Ulysses and Massimo at Michele’s. I wanted to be a guest at the Pensione Bertolini, and I wanted to go to Col’s East End pub and listen to Pete playing the piano while Peg sings. I wanted to meet Claude, fiction’s greatest parrot, and go to Giglio for the summer; I wanted to visit an art gallery with Evelyn and hear her insights for myself. I don’t think there is a feeling quite like the one you get when you are reading a book and you just want it all to exist, to be true. It is rare and special and almost sacred.

The link to E.M Forster’s A Room With a View is extraordinary – this is no knowing nod or gentle homage; Still Life consumes the classic novel, absorbs it and offers us something greater, further-reaching, MORE. It pretty much eats Forster for breakfast, and gives us a banquet of better, alternative ways of falling in love in and with Florence. Towards the end there is a kind of coda that I wasn’t expecting, which added even more depth to this already profound novel.

What Sarah Winman doesn’t teach us about love in this novel isn’t worth knowing. This book is so big-hearted, so kind without being sentimental, so accepting of our imperfections – reading this story is like being part of a warm, loving family, and I felt utterly bereft at having to leave the characters on the final page. Still Life is, for me, a perfect novel.

Still Life by Sarah Winman is published by 4th Estate Books on 1st June and is available to pre-order here.

4 thoughts on “Review: Still Life by Sarah Winman (2021)

  1. Wow, this is some review, Ellie. Like you, this book has been on my radar since I first heard about it. A new book from Sarah Winman is exciting enough on its own but one set in Florence and featuring EM Forster and A Room with a View? This might be my dream book.

    Unlike you, I have had to bide my time until the release date – I suppose I could have tried requesting it on NetGalley but that wouldn’t have felt quite the same, so I have not so patiently waited for it to come out. I can’t wait to collect my copy next week, all the more so after having read what you had to say about it.

    Like

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