Still Life–book review

Still Life, by Sarah Winman

After a strange first chapter this book leaps into absolute gorgeousness and oh God! It helps that I read it in Italy. The Allied Troops are waiting to enter Florence. With them, is a young man, Ulysses Temper, and his Captain Darnley. Darnley has seen to it that the younger man should fall in love with Italy. “A little over a month before, they’d driven up to Orvieto, a city built on a huge rock overlooking the Paglia Valley. They’d sat on the bonnet of the jeep and drunk red wine out of their canteens as bombers roared overhead towards Mount Cetona, the boundary of Tuscany. They’d stumbled into the cathedral, into the San Brizio chapel, where Luca Signorelli’s masterpiece of the Last Judgement could be found. Neither of them believers, the images had still held them to account.” As they drive away their jeep is waved down by Evelyn Skinner, art historian, who needs a lift.

The dialogue between Evelyn and Ulysses is perfect. English, clipped, wry funny, understated. You can tell these two are going to be friends for life. In the fast way of two people who click but realise they will probably never meet again, Evelyn sums herself up.  Kent. Sixty-four. Unmarried. Childless. We feel she’s also posh, independent and full of zing. He’s: London. Twenty-four. Married, no kids. He tells her he’s the son of a globe maker. “Find a Temper & Son globe and you’ll find my mum’s name hidden somewhere on the surface.” Lots of little villages called Nora. How romantic is that?

This book is busting full of romance, but none of it the obvious kind. Ulysses’ wife, Peg, gives his heart grace and fury. She sings smokey sex at the Stoat and Parrot, all high heels and lipstick and a sway to her hips. Ulysses got her married when she was drunk because they were old friends and he wanted her to have his pension if he died in the war. She punched him in the face. They divorce but remain tightly bound friends for life (you have to read it to understand the complications) and Ulysses ends up raising her kid in Italy. The ‘kid’ over the years turns into Alys, the heart of Ulysses’ band of eccentrics who merge into Florence life.

There’s so much that’s so good in this book I don’t know what to highlight. Most of the action is set around a sprawling apartment/hotel over two floors in a main Florentine piazza that Ulysses inherits some years after the war, an indirect result of an extraordinary roof-top climb. Read the book for that scene alone, really. And every scene with Peg in it. Oh God, and the devastating 1966 Florence flood. The descriptions are sublime.

This is one of these zeitgeist stories where a disparate collection of individuals merge into a ‘found’ family where they love and support each other. Is this a sign of our isolated modern lives, the need to idealise this notion of a family of friends? We may not be born into The Waltons but we can find our own people? I think in real life these groups tend to explode rather than unite but this is fiction, and each of the characters who joins the gang in Florence brings their own idiosyncrasies, needs and gifts to the mix. There’s meek Cressy, a parrot, Col the grumpy pub owner with alphabetical girlfriends, Pete the Piano player, the countess from the floor below. Yes, it’s sentimental and romantic. Yum.

There is a slight niggling in my mind, from being (as I mentioned) in Italy as I was reading and not thinking, particularly, that a band of English eccentrics would be so welcomed into the Italian community, taking over the local bar and hooning into the piazza in a run down car with the horn blaring. This mini-colonisation is always a delightful English dream, to plant oneself into a little slice of foreign and feel at home with the natives. But the English abroad are always the English abroad.

If I was the editor I would have dropped the first and last chapters, both extended parts of Evelyn’s life, neither of which do her much credit, I think. And we could also probably do without the parrot.

Author: Cristina Sanders Blog

Novelist, trail runner, book reviewer and blogger.

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