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  • Writer's pictureThe Beagle

Still Life : a review by Trevor Moore

Still Life

Sarah Winman, 4th Estate, 2021, ISBN 978-0-00-828336-0, 438pp

I had been reading too much (if that is possible) non-fiction and decided to lighten up. I ambled into Moruya Books, as I do from time to time, to find a ripping good read. I was encouraged by the incomparable Julie to read Still Life by Sarah Winman. Put it on the heap, I said. Ah, she said, we just sold the last copy. Instead, I wandered out with Alexandria and Klara and the Sun which I reviewed last month. But the next time I entered the hallowed portals of Moruya Books I remembered Still Life and there it was. I am pleased I remembered it for had I not, I would have missed one the best reads I have had for a long time. Sarah Winman is a British writer and, if writing were not talent enough, she is also an actress. This is her third novel and I expect to read the previous two, not the least because the first is intriguingly entitled When God Was a Rabbit.

Italians are in the news as I write. In a feat that has stunned the world of athletics an Italian with the un-Italian name of Marcell Jacobs (he was born in Texas but raised in Italy) has won the 100m in fine style and in 9.8 seconds. At his fastest he was moving at 43.07kph (26.76mph). But I am not writing about the 100m; I am reviewing a book. Sarah Winman got the inspiration for Still Life when she visited Florence as part of a course she took on Renaissance Art. While she was there, she learned of the flood of 1966 and of the Mud Angels - the young men and women who came from all over the world to help clean up. I knew none of this. Most of the book is set in Florence and the description of the flood is pretty breathtaking. She writes well and I rather liked that she does not use any quote marks in the dialogue. Surprisingly, I found that this made it easier to read and easier to follow the dialogue.

In time ways it is hard to say what this novel is about. There is a story, but it is not that which carries the narrative along. It is the characters that make this book such a lovely read. I could argue that - apart from the flood - not a lot happens. Yet this is a book about relationships, about love, hope, family and fate. The central character is Ulysses Temper and the book opens in 1944 as the Allies are pushing northward through Italy. He meets a sexagenarian art historian and possible spy, Evelyn Skinner - possibly the author herself is the inspiration for this character - who is ostensibly looking for art that has been looted by the Nazis. Their meeting lasts for only a few hours before they each go their separate ways, and yet each has an effect on the other that is a theme of the book. They repeatedly come close to meeting again as the years progress - the book runs up to 1979 - and eventually they do meet again. The book has enough of that feel-good thing about it that you always know they will meet again even though there is no particular reason for their meeting.

Even though Ulysses and Evelyn are the main characters, I would not say that the book is about the two of them although it is about each of them. Ulysses had married Peg just as he sets off to war not, I think, because he loved her but just because. In Ulysses’ absence, Peg has an affair with an American and has a child, Alys, by him. Ulysses is left (no plot spoilers here) some property and money in Florence and decides to move there and he takes Alys and a parrot called Claude along.

We are left wondering exactly what Evelyn was doing in Florence in 1944. Was she a spy? The last 55 pages of the book is a chapter called All about Evelyn and yet, at the end of it, we still do not know why she would have been in Italy in 1944 at the height of the Allied invasion. What we do learn is that she met E M Forster whose classic novel A Room with a View is also set between England and Italy. I was forced to read this book for my “O” level English and as a result hated it with a passion that only a 16-year-old forced to do something he doesn’t want to do can summon up. Perhaps I should read it now. But Evelyn’s meeting with the young Forster is just a thing that happens: it is not significant in the overall narrative, or not to me.

This is a book that draws you in to its characters and their inter-relationships. It is well-written, and you sort of know that all will be alright in the end. And it is alright in the end though because it is an exploration rather than a story, there is no end. You can make that up yourself. But unlike many books (and, indeed, films) that leave the reader too fill in the conclusion, Still Life leaves you satisfied and not frustrated with that. It is a great read. Read it now. Do not pass “go”; do not collect your $200. You will not regret it.


NOTE: Comments were TRIALED - in the end it failed as humans will be humans and it turned into a pile of merde; only contributed to by just a handful who did little to add to the conversation of the issue at hand. Anyone who would like to contribute an opinion are encouraged to send in a Letter to the Editor where it might be considered for publication

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