By the bestselling, prize-winning author of When God was a Rabbit and Tin Man, Still 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’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.
Just when you think you’ve found your favourite books of the year so far, another one comes along. That book is Still Life. What a band of lovable, eccentric characters in this marvellous story that sweeps across more than forty years from the second world war to the late 1970s. It looks at love, friendship, class, sexuality, art and culture in a manner that is both hilarious and sad in equal measures. It takes place in London and Florence, Italy and we also have a glimpse into the life of Evelyn much earlier in the twentieth century. She may have been a spy, but now she lectures in Art History.
When God Was a Rabbit is one of my favourite all-time books so it goes without saying that I was going to love Still Life. The book opens with sexagenarian Evelyn Skinner (who looks ten years younger), sitting with Margaret somebody in Florence during the second world war. Evelyn decides to take a walk outside and stands by the side of the road where she is picked up by Private Ulysses Temper and his superior office Captain Darnley. They end up in a wine cellar full of paintings, drinking wine until they have to vacate when bombs start falling around them. Neither Evelyn nor ‘Temps’ will ever forget that night.
The war is over and Ulysses returns to his wife Peg in London, only to discover that while he was away (to be fair it was years) she has had a child Alys with an American soldier name Eddie. And it is here that the story takes an unusual and unexpected turn. Peg struggles to care for Alys, so when Ulysses inherits a house in Florence, he takes the kid as they call her, with him. They are accompanied by the philosophical, sixty-something Cressy, who talks to a tree back home, and a blue Amazonian parrot named Claude, who quotes Shakespeare and seems to understand almost everything. They travel overland in a vehicle called Betsy.
In London, they leave the heavy-drinking, foul-mouthed landlord Col who runs the Stoat and Parrot (now just the Stoat) where piano Pete plays for the punters, while Peg sings. Col’s wife ran off to Scotland, but daughter Ginny still lives with him, mostly.
We follow these main characters from London to Florence, where they meet even more eccentric people like the adorable Massimo and the elderly contessa, but will Ulysses ever be reunited with Evelyn?
Still Life is a sweeping novel of epic proportions but it cannot be described as an epic or even historical fiction. It’s a tale that evolves slowly, totally character driven and I say that because Florence is one of the characters, as much so as Ulysses, Evelyn, Cressy and Peg and of course the wonderful Claude.
Many thanks to NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
About the Author
Sarah Winman (born 1964) is a British actress and author. In 2011 her debut novel When God Was a Rabbit became an international bestseller and won Winman several awards including New Writer of the Year in the Galaxy National Book Awards.