The latest novel by Sarah Winman, Still Life (4th Estate Harper Collins 2021) is a literary achievement that will have wide appeal. The characterisation is rich and layered, the storyline is complex, the descriptions are evocative and the themes of the book are relatable and universal. This is a remarkable, ambitious historical novel that is completely immersive. It is a joy to read; I lost myself in this story and have been thinking about it ever since.
The most wonderful aspect is the circular route of the narrative … we begin in a certain place and time … we traverse countries and cultures … we end with a section that could rightly have been at the beginning of the book and not been out of place. This is a book about connections, symbiotic relationships, coincidences and random acts of fate.
The book opens in Italy in 1944 when young British soldier Ulysses Temper meets sexagenarian art historian (and possible spy) Evelyn Skinner. She is salvaging paintings and artworks from the ruins of war and reminiscing about her meeting with E.M Forster and her brief love affair with a maid in a Tuscan room with a view. Despite their age difference and their short time together as barely more than strangers, Evelyn and Ulysses develop a strong affinity that haunts them both for many years to come. Their shared talk of art and beauty and meaning, their senses of humour, their uplifting take on life – these things bind them together in a way they will never forget.
From there, the story gathers speed as we meet a host of characters: Darnley, Cressy, Ginny, Peg, Col, Piano Pete, Livia, the enigmatic Eddie, Alys (the Kid) and of course Claude, the blue macaw. Each has a complicated backstory explored gradually throughout the book. As the narrative progresses, each begins to feel like an old friend.
The themes traversed include diversity, friendship, love, desire, queer identity, hope, truth, the depiction of art and beauty, sacrifice, grief, loss, the reverberating ripples of the trauma of war and the human need to search for meaning. As the story moves across the decades, and then takes us back full circle, we become completely enamoured with these people and their lives. I was totally absorbed in this book and would highly recommend it.