Book Review: Still Life by Sarah Winman

Sarah Winman’s new book begins in 1944 Italy, as English troops are engaged in the push back agains the Germans. We’ve got a meeting between two unlikely friends: Evelyn Skinner a sixty-something art historian sojourning in Tuscany with fellow lesbian Margaret; and a young soldier, Ulysses Temper. Temps, as his mates call him, chances upon Evelyn and introduces her to his erudite Captain Darnley and the three discover a painting which has a big effect on the young soldier.

Oh, drop the Miss, for God’s sake, said Evelyn, sitting down next to him. My name’s Evelyn. And yours?

Ulysses.

Ulysses! How wonderful! And is there a Penelope waiting for your return?

Nah. Just a Peggy. And I doubt she’s waiting, and he turned the ignition and the jeep pulled away.

Temps is from London’s East End, the son of a globe-maker, a fitting occupation for a man named Ulysses. He paints delicate versions of the Earth on carefully prepared spheres, but his experiences in Florence will stay with him long after his return. A chance interception of an attempted suicide will bring him back here, but not before we’ve been introduced to his fellow Eastenders who make up a kind of family, and the 1940s spin into the 1950s.

Winman creates some wonderful characters here, all of them centred on the Stoat and Parrot – the pub owned by Col, a cantankerous publican with permanent dyspepsia. Col runs through girlfriends in alphabetical order, blaming the Shakespeare-spouting parrot for the desertion of his wife. But he’s got a disabled daughter to raise, a naive innocent. Fortunately Peggy’s on hand, taking the girl under her wing along with old-timer Cress who talks to a tree and keeps an eye out for everyone.

Peggy is Ulysses’s wife – a hasty marriage brought on by the start of war, but his time away has Peggy form an attachment to American soldier, Eddie, and left her with a daughter, Alys. When Eddie fails to return, Peggy belts out her blues in song at the Stoat and Parrot, accompanied by Pete, when he’s not in a show. The reader gets enough of the gritty post-war London with it’s slow rebuild and pea-soup fogs to want better for this odd family of characters. It comes in the form of a legacy which has Ulysses, Cress and young Alys (who Ulysses loves like his own daughter) move to Florence accompanied by Claude, the parrot.

From here, the story weaves through the decades, and Ulysses makes new friends and learns to love the Italian lifestyle. He chucks out his demob suit for a sharp Italian look and Cress learns to cook pasta. Our friends from the Stoat and Parrot will drift here for visits and longer stays, watching the big world events play out – the moon landings, student demonstrations, assassinations of Martin Luther King and JFK – as the world recreates itself after the recent wars.

Still Life is a feast for the senses. The food alone in this book is worth reading it for – I pulled out an Italian cookbook destined for a second-hand fair, determined to revisit some of these classic dishes. As well as the food and wine we have sweltering summers, scented gardens, wonderful art (and poetry), the music of the day, romantic attachments of all kinds, shown with sensitivity and warmth.

I loved the characters, but particularly Ulysses, who unlike his namesake, is sensitive, charming and caring, quietly missing Peggy who he can’t seem to forget. Still Life is a lively book full of lifelike people who learn to live and love again in a wonderful new place (there’s also a quirky lack of punctuation when it comes to dialogue, which took a bit of getting used to). It’s also a hymn to Florence, and if you’ve been there before, Still Life will bring it all back for you. A book that charms on many levels, it’s a four out of five read from me.

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