Still Life by Sarah Winman

From 1944 to 1979, from the Tuscan Hills to the East End of London …

‘Somewhere in the Tuscan hills, two English spinsters, Evelyn Skinner and a Margaret someone, were eating a late lunch on the terrace of a modest albergo.  It was the 2nd of August. A beautiful summer’s day, if only you could forget there was a war on.’

From the opening sentence, Ms Winman’s story unfolds, over the next forty-five years. The story involves the lives and loves of many different characters, as well as the spirit of E.M. Forster.

The two main characters meet in the ruined wine cellar of a Tuscan villa. The Allied troops are advancing, bombs are falling around them. Private Ulysses Temper is a young British soldier, Evelyn Skinner is a sexagenarian art historian, and perhaps a spy. She has come to Italy to salvage art from the ruins, and to remember the past. Their encounter will shape Ulysses’ life for the next forty years.

After the war, Ulysses (‘Temps’) works in a pub. His wife Peg has moved on, but not out of his circle. Her daughter Alys becomes important to Ulysses. And so it is, that when Ulysses inherits a property in Florence, he takes Alys with him, as well as his friend Old Cress and an amazing Amazonian parrot named Claude.

‘There are moments in life, so monumental and still, that the memory can never be retrieved without a catch to the throat or an interruption to the beat of the heart.’

Evelyn continues her own life: teaching at Slade and swimming with her friend Dorothy Cunningham. And there are many other characters as well, enriching the story, adding depth and humour to a story which grabbed my attention and held it until the last page. For much of the story, it seems that Ulysses and Evelyn are never going to meet again despite some close encounters. Alys grows into womanhood and struggles at times (don’t we all, when we are young?) to find her own place in the world. Time marches on. Some people adapt to their circumstances, while others are overcome. Different characters move into the story and become part of the journey. And some long-standing characters, such as Col’s 1930s ambulance with its wailing siren, seem indestructible.

The story is woven around some historical events, including the flood of Florence in 1966, and mentions others. But it is the characters who will remain with me.

‘So, time heals. Mostly. Sometimes carelessly.’

It took me a little while to become caught up in the story and to realise that speech marks were absent and unnecessary. I enjoyed the well-developed characters, the way in which families were formed out of care, love and respect regardless of biology.  And, if you have read ‘A Room with a View’ you will probably enjoy ‘Still Life’ even more. This is a novel I will buy to reread, and I’ll be looking for Ms Winman’s other novels as well.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith