THE PLOT: ‘Still Life’ by Sarah Winman is about a young soldier called Ulysses who meets 64-year-old Evelyn in Italy in the final months of WWII. In this brief encounter Evelyn introduces Ulysses to art, culture and the beauty of Tuscany. But when Ulysses returns to grimy East London after the war he’s confronted by change; his father’s globe making shop was bombed and his wife Peg – the love of his life – has moved on. When a surprising opportunity for Ulysses to go back to Italy arises, he takes a chance. Through the decades, Ulysses develops a rich life and found family. But, there’s unfinished business with Peg and Evelyn, who remain distant yet important figures in the shadows.
RATING: Oh god, I have such a love/hate relationship with this novel. The clever writing, idyllic atmosphere and heart-warming characters are incredible. There is no doubt that Sarah Winman is a master of her craft. Literally, this book will have you booking flights to Florence asap. But the plot (like the limit) does not exist. This novel meanders through the largely pleasant lives of its characters and there’s no tension, there’s no stakes, there’s no piss and vinegar to drive the novel forward. So, as I say, it’s a love/hate relationship. This is a gorgeous book in every sense of the word and I could wax lyrical on its positive attributes but I have to give it four stars (instead of five) because it didn’t fully hit the mark for me.
GOOD BITS: Firstly, the writing is incredible. It’s witty one-liners and character descriptions that show the author has intensely studied human nature. It’s an intelligent third person omniscient narrator who almost toys with the reader (sometimes to my frustration). Secondly, the atmosphere is so evocative of Florence, with delicious food and good wine and art and music and the sunlight bouncing off the Arno. Finally, the side characters are intensely loveable. Gentle, kind Cressy and sweet Ginny will live in my heart forever. Sarah Winman even manages to make a bloody parrot (shout out to Claude) a nuanced and well-rounded supporting character. The good bits of this novel are so good, I’m convinced Sarah Winman is a genius.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: My criticisms are centred around a lack of plot / character arc for Ulysses, the slow opening and ending, and the writing being a bit too clever in places. On the first point, I am slightly biased because I listen to too many writing podcasts but there’s very little tension and the stakes never get raised. The main questions are whether Ulysses and Peg will get together, and whether Ulysses and Evelyn will meet again, which didn’t feel like was enough core plot to sustain such a long novel. Additionally, the other events felt like a series of near misses and coincidences rather than a cohesive plot. While the witty one-liners and omniscient narrator were very well-written, it was almost as if all the style was getting in the way of the plot and the narrator was purposely stopping the plot from coming together.
In regards to the opening and ending, it took me 100 pages to get into this novel. That’s partly because it has no speech-marks and I struggled to find the rhythm. It’s also because I didn’t engage with the characters and too much time was spent introducing people who never really came back in a meaningful way. This does sort of resolve itself in the ending, but it all fell flat because I never cared about those opening characters to begin with.
OVERALL: This is not your typical historical fiction and do not go into it as such. It is a unique, creative and somewhat unusual novel in structure, form and style. I’d even class it as ‘literary historical’ as it sort of stretched the genre and because of this, it’s hard for me to think of comps. However, I’d recommend it to lovers of Laurie Lee, Eva Rice and Maggie O’Farrell. While that may seem like a ragtag band of authors, I just think this novel is about vibes and atmosphere, whether it’s a pre-war pastoral idyll like ‘Cider with Rosie’ or the post-war found family of ‘The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp’ or an interesting form and style with tons of atmosphere like ‘Hamnet’.
Thank you to my fantastic buddy readers. This is certainly one to read with others as there’s lots to discuss and think about. Some of my buddy readers loved the audiobook, which I’d recommend if you want to read this but are worried about the punctuation. Of the group, I feel I was perhaps the most critical so do not let me put you off. This is a book you need to read and, most importantly, feel for yourself. There is no way that a plot summary or review can do it justice.