Book Review: Still Life by Sarah Winman

About the Book:

1944, in the ruined wine cellar of a Tuscan villa, as bombs fall around them, two strangers meet and share an extraordinary evening.

Ulysses Temper is a young British soldier, Evelyn Skinner is a sexagenarian art historian and possible spy. She has come to Italy to salvage paintings from the wreckage and relive memories of the time she encountered EM Forster and had her heart stolen by an Italian maid in a particular Florentine room with a view.

Evelyn’s talk of truth and beauty plants a seed in Ulysses’ mind that will shape the trajectory of his life – and of those who love him – for the next four decades.

Moving from the Tuscan Hills and piazzas of Florence, to the smog of London’s East End, Still Life is a sweeping, joyful novel about beauty, love, family and fate.

Published by HarperCollins Publishers Australia – 4th Estate GB

Released 2nd June 2021

My Thoughts:

‘There are moments in life, so monumental and still, that the memory can never be retrieved without a catch to the throat or an interruption to the beat of the heart. Can never be retrieved without the rumbling disquiet of how close that moment came to not having happened at all.’

Readers, please meet my new favourite book. This novel. I love it when this happens, when you know, right from the first page, that you are reading something rare and wonderful and completely perfect for you. That’s what Still Life is for me. Note that I said is, not was, because I don’t think this novel could ever be past tense for me. There is so much love, human connection, and appreciation for art and literature on every page of this novel. It’s absolutely filled to the brim with philosophy about life, art, literature, morality, sensibility, and how all these things give meaning to our existence and connect us to each other. There’s also a wonderful play on six degrees of separation throughout, with so many people connecting back to Evelyn – even famous literary figures. And it’s funny. And beautiful. And it has this amazing South American Macaw named Claude in it who is the most brilliant character you could ever meet. The things he says! He is so funny. If only I could teach Mordy, my own parrot, to speak like Claude.

‘The power of still life lies precisely in this triviality. Because it is a world of reliability. Of mutuality between objects that are there, and people who are not. Paused time in ghostly absence.’

Still Life is a love letter to Florence. Which really suited me just fine because Florence is the city of my dreams, the one I want to one day wander through. The Florence of Still Life is a character itself, bubbling with atmosphere and continually pressing me to drink wine, eat pasta, and sip espresso. Outdoors of course. The novel is imbued with Florentine history and culture, from the 1970s back through the ages, seen and retold through the eyes of people who have made it their home. The narrative has a conversational feel to it, it’s very intimate in style. The lack of quotation marks enhanced this novel greatly, I felt, aiding in that intimacy and giving the reader a sense of being a part of it all. The characters were all just brilliant. Both clashing and cohesive, the dynamics between them all reached out of the page and drew me in. There is passion in this novel but there is also love, deep and devoted non-romantic love between people who are not related, but rather, choose each other as family. I loved this about Still Life the most: the relationships that brought such an eclectic mix of people together to live under the one roof in a distant land.

‘And it was this she would remember: His voice resonant in the stillness. People listening to him, not laughing. She stood up, marched over to him and held his hand. Her exquisite moment of ownership. The day when he became hers.

As is the way, the ones you love the most are the hardest to review. I think it’s because the objectivity is lost. You love it, and that’s all there is to it, so other people should too – and they should brace themselves if they don’t (just joking…sort of). I do think this novel has so much to offer to those who love literary historical fiction, particularly sweeping sagas that weave the history of a place firmly into its narrative. And if you love Italy, then this is definitely a novel to add to your shelf. While the world we currently live in prevents me from wandering the streets of Florence, I am grateful to Sarah Winman for giving us Still Life. The next best thing.

‘So, time heals. Mostly. Sometimes carelessly. And in unsuspecting moments, the pain catches and reminds one of all that’s been missing. The fulcrum of what might have been. But then it passes. Winter moves into spring and swallows return. The proximity of new skin returns to the sheets. Beauty does what is required. Jobs fulfil and conversations inspire. Loneliness becomes a mere Sunday. Scattered clothes. Empty bowls. Rotting fruit. Passing time. But still life in all its beauty and complexity.’


Thanks to the publisher for providing me with a review copy.

11 thoughts on “Book Review: Still Life by Sarah Winman

  1. Oooh what a fantastic review! I have this one sitting right here on my TBR, so now I’m VERY excited to read it! What a gift to find a book that you fall utterly in love with. There really is nothing quite like it. (That’s how I felt about Hamnet. And I completely understand how hard it can be to say anything beyond ‘I loved it’ so I think you’ve done a tremendous job with this review!). I’ve been to Florence, briefly, and ADORED it and have always wanted to go back, so this sounds perfect. Thank you for the recommendation and I’ll keep you posted! xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • In the right hands, I am a fan. Rooney does it well, and in this novel, it worked brilliantly. Cecelia Ahern also didn’t use quotation marks in her latest, Freckles, and it worked there as well. I used to be dead against it but it’s growing on me.


  2. Pingback: Still Life, by Sarah Winman | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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