Still Life by Sarah Winman
I picked up this book on a recommendation from a friend, who found it very hard going for the first third and then adored the rest. Well, I have to say I don’t agree! I fell in love with Still Life from page 1 and adored every single word of it! Even better, it got me out of a longish reading slump that for a bookworm like me has been pure torture.
I hadn’t read Sarah Winman before although I remember When God Was a Rabbit making a stir a few years ago. I’m looking forward to reading that one, now that I so enjoyed Still Life.
One of the many things that I really loved about this book is that it’s packed with unexpected twists and turns that end up being just right. I closed the book, feeling like I’d just spent time in the company of wonderful people and partaking of a rich and mysterious slice of life. A problem for someone who writes for a living is that generally I can see plot developments coming a mile ahead. This one took me by surprise over and over. Not only that, every surprise was lovely and fitting for the people and situations.
Other books that gave me this wonderful breadth of imaginative experience and the feeling that this is life as it is lived include Possession by A.S. Byatt and The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. If you’ve read either of those and liked them, I strongly recommend picking up Still Life. What Still Life has in common with both those other stories is that it depicts a huge cast of characters, all vividly delineated so they leap off the page as real people, and the plots encompass a wide historical sweep that carries our characters forward to destinies they would never have expected for themselves when they were young.
The book opens in the closing days of World War II in Italy and introduces us to the two main characters who meet outside Florence in the months when the Allies were desperately trying to rescue Europe’s artistic heritage from the threat of Nazi destruction. Evelyn Skinner is an ageing intellectual English spinster and art history specialist. Ulysses Temper is a young working-class man from London’s East End whose fate takes an unexpected turn on this day.
I don’t want to say too much about the plot because I found its lovely winding pattern so satisfying and so intriguing. The ramifications of that day in Florence reach down through the generations in a way that I found utterly enchanting and I think you will too. I use the word enchanting deliberately. There’s a slightly fairytale quality to the story that makes it even more magical.
One of the joys of the book is the huge cast of characters, all fascinating and all perfectly delineated individuals. It’s a delight to watch them interacting and influencing one another through the long time arc.
A lot of the comments I read about Still Life call it a book about love in all its guises and I think that’s the best way to describe it. There’s sexual love and family love and deep, soul-feeding friendships. Love requited and unrequited. There’s even love of animals. Among my favorite characters in the book is a parrot who steals the show in every scene he appears in.
Even better, the love often arrives in unexpected guises, as it does in real life. This is the sort of book that makes you smile after you put it down and feel that the world is a grander, more generous place than perhaps you’ve realized.
And of course, there’s the wonderful setting which comes alive and desperately makes me want to travel again. Much of the book returns to Florence, and Stillman creates that city as a marvelous and miraculous and mysterious place, full of a cornucopia of gifts for the soul and the intellect.
As you can probably tell, I’m raving about this story. I’d give it ten stars out of five! It’s one of the best books I’ve read in ages and it’s a book I’ve thought about often since I finished it a few weeks ago.
It’s so lively and joyful and full of heart. Something very special! The writing is beautiful, the characters are unforgettable, and the story is uplifting and life-affirming. Pretty much the definition of my perfect read!