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 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 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, Sarah Winman’s Still Life is a sweeping, joyful novel about beauty, love, family and fate.
It explores the themes of friendship and community, and looks at the definition of family, showing how a group of individuals without ties of blood can provide each other with a sense of family, kinship, acceptance, love, trust and support, and offer a space where people can be their absolute selves, honestly and without pretence.
As it unfolds the story challenges long-held views of traditional gender stereotypes: Peg’s honesty about her lack of maternal instinct and her desire not to parent; Ulysses and several other of the male characters doing what was considered at that time to be “women’s work”; the male dominance of the art world and the complete overlooking of female artists and their work, and the contribution they made to the evolution of art.
It also looks at love and sexuality: society’s gradual move to a more honest and open approach to, and the acceptance of, an individual’s sexuality is depicted through the experiences of the novel’s gay characters; and the various relationships within the novel, along with the different construct of family looks at how love is expressed and felt, and how it might not be the traditional “hearts and flowers” definition of Hollywood or Hallmark cards.
And in addition to all of this, Still Life gives the reader a user-friendly crash course in Art through the centuries, and, is also a huge love letter to the city of Florence, which is as much a character as Ulysses, Evelyn, Peg, Col, Cress, Pete et al.
This joyous, wonderous, atmospheric, beautifully written novel has such a warmth and generosity of spirit. It has a cast of unforgettable and brilliantly drawn characters; prose which is rich, poetic and beautiful; and it is a complete delight for the senses- you can see, hear, taste, touch and feel everything, it is all so immediate and immersing – from the warmth of the sun, to the pasta at dinner, to the sparkling of the sea, to the blue of the cloudless sky, and the coolness of a welcome breeze on a stifling hot day.
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