I bought Still Life by Sarah Winman a couple of months ago in Sainsbury’s, because I was running out of books to read. I liked the look of the cover. Something about it reminded me of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, possibly my favourite book ever. I think it was just the word ‘Life’, plus the image of a single animal on the cover. It turns out that is a very good reason to choose a book.
Still Life is Sarah Winman’s fourth novel. I read her first, When God Was a Rabbit, a really long time ago – so long ago I haven’t reviewed it on the blog. I don’t remember anything about it. But I’m going to remember Still Life for a very long time to come.
In Italy in 1944, two strangers meet in a wine cellar as the bombs fall around them. They are Evelyn Skinner, a 64-year-old art historian, there to rescue priceless works of art from the war, and Ulysses Temper, a young British soldier. They are only together briefly, but those memories stay with them forever. For Ulysses, his time in Italy changes the course of his whole life.
When the war is over, Ulysses returns to London and his wife, Peg. Ulysses spends his whole time at a local pub, surrounded by a bunch of likeable misfits. Without much family to call his own, the pub is his home and the staff are his family.
Meanwhile, Evelyn continues to live life on her own terms. She is a lesbian (in fact, three of the four main female characters are lesbians) who hangs out with artists and writers. She is a teacher and an art expert who loves her friends and travel. She continues to travel and enjoy life into her 70s, 80s and beyond.
Neither Ulysses nor Evelyn ever forgets the other. Will their paths ever cross again?
Still Life is a stunning novel, which spans the years 1901 to 1979. It is an absolute triumph and I cannot fault it. The characters are all wonderful (including the parrot on the cover) and there isn’t a single moment where it gets boring or something doesn’t ring quite true. Some of the historical detail, including an encounter with a famous novelist, made me wonder whether if it is a true story, but it is simply an incredible work of fiction.
I can’t recommend Still Life highly enough.