Hero photograph
Photo by Kay Mercer

Book Review: Still Life by Sarah Winman

Shirley Jones —

Published by 4th Estate, London in 2021

In the opening pages of Still Life we are introduced to Evelyn Skinner an English art historian in her sixties who is in Florence at the tail end of World War Two, ostensibly helping with the salvaging of important art works. 

Here Evelyn meets Ulysses Temper, a young English soldier, and is taken to an abandoned Tuscan villa where Allied troops are briefly stationed, and we are immediately thrown into the turbulence and reality of a war scene. Captain Darnley, the superior officer, Ulysses and Evelyn spend some time together in the villa's ruined wine cellar, drinking fabulous wine from crystal glasses, smoking, and talking about art and life, where Darnley and Evelyn share a love of Florence. After they part, Darnley releases Ulysses from duty for the day to experience Florence. What happens on that day has enormous repercussions for Ulysses. 

The story unfolds from 1944 to the end of the seventies, and then briefly back to a significant time in Evelyn’s life. It is set in Florence and England and is full of eccentric and memorable characters. We get to know beautiful, hard-nosed Peg; Col the pub landlord; Cress the older gentleman who communes with trees; Pete the piano player and many more. Claude, the Shakespearean-influenced parrot, is a comic delight. Winman writes with such beautiful language - full of poetic descriptions, humour and intensity. 

I loved this book. Winman obviously loves Florence and it shows. She emphasises the importance of art and music to people. The strength of community is a dominant theme as is the acceptance of everyone’s differences. It is moving, tender, funny and deeply felt. I thoroughly recommend Still Life to all lovers of Italy, fiction with a heart, and books that use  gorgeous language to transport the reader.

With thanks to Harper Collins New Zealand for providing an advance review copy of the book.