4th Estate Books June 2021
It is 1944 and in the ruined wine cellar of a Tuscan villa, as the Allied troops advance and bombs fall around them, two strangers meet and share an extraordinary evening together.
Ulysses Temper is a young British soldier and one – time globe – maker, Evelyn Skinner is a sexagenarian art historian and possible spy. She has come to Italy to salvage paintings from the ruins and relive her memories of the time she encountered E. M. Forster and had her heart stolen by an Italian maid in a particular Florentine room with a view.
These two unlikely people find kindred spirits in each other and 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, richly – peopled novel about beauty, love, family and fate.
Firstly huge thanks to Naomi at 4th Estate Books for the stunning proof copy of this book. Still Life is an rich and epic story spanning decades from post war to the close of the 70s. Set in London and Italy the lives of the two protagonists – Evelyn and Ulysses are covered in glorious technicolour through all of their ups and downs.
For those familiar with Winman’s writing it won’t be a surprise to learn that once again she has created a cast of wonderful characters, all engaging, all flawed and all human. Perhaps her bravest to date this book feels grander, broader and wider and at just short of 500 pages it is a sizeable tome.
Ulysses and Evelyn meet towards the end of the war in Italy, a generation apart, but there is a connection made in their few shared hours that remains memorable and important to both. Following their lives chronolgically as they go their seperate ways, this is a moving read that captures the range of human emotion in lives lived fully.
For me Ulysses and his story was wonderful, his friendships, with Peg, Pete and Cress were nothing short of beautiful, lifelong and familial. Col, Ayls and Claude were also key and all were significant in this story. Evelyn was a fabulous character with a glorious life of loving, with great friendships forged along the way and while her story was lesser and told looking back it was vibrant and full. We knew she would feature again with Ulysses but it was him who we travelled with through the years and for me as the reader this made for a stronger investment.
This was a book that started slow but developed into something absorbing and tangible, the writing was eloquent and I loved how the lives of Evelyn and Ulysses brushed tantilisingly close but never quite touched, but how they never forgot the other, the recording of these close encounters teased and tempted the reader with what was to come. The community was strong in all aspects of the book, the East London scenes were entertaining, while the Florence scenes tapped into the depth of the relationships between the characters which had formed over the many shared years.
A beautiful read that is hard to capture in words to describe the experience. A book about community and love, friendship and acceptance, tragedy and survival. A must for fans of Sarah Winman’s earlier work, but also for anyone looking for an epic work of historical fiction, detailing Florence and its works of art, moving through the ages with love and friendship as the central theme.
About the Author
Sarah Winman grew up in Essex. She attended the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art and went on to act in theatre, film and television. She is the author of When God Was a Rabbit, A Year of Marvellous Ways and Tin Man. She lives in London.