Still Life is a highly regarded and acclaimed novel and after reading it, I can see why.
Beginning in the dying moments of the second world war in Italy, Ulysses Temper, a young British soldier meets Evelyn Skinner a middle-aged art historian on the hunt to salvage paintings from the ruins of the war. This establishes the story of mostly, Ulysses his life after the war and the influence on him by this chance meeting.
There is no real plot but the story is full and rich as we navigate the decades. Ulysses is the pivotal star whose gentle and calm nature holds the crew of other characters together. More importantly it is through his eyes that the reader is seduced to fall for him and his life as we voyeuristically involve ourselves in the everyday detail. The supporting characters are terrific with a full kaleidoscope of humour, sadness, good will and genuine friendship. Who could not love the parrot, Claude? Even the writer, E. M. Skinner turns up. But Peggy and her daughter Alys, were difficult characters and for me Alys belied her years so much that it edged on disbelief.
The other main character is of course, the city of Florence. Who could resist a book about a group of friends living in such a place? I was surprised also to learn of the great flood. It took me back to my own visit there many years ago when the river, far from a raging torrent was a mere trickle when the city was in severe drought. This book made me wonder what it is that makes a city have heart and soul. Is it the food, the people or the art? I think it’s all of that and Winman showcases it beautifully.
Art by some of the masters portrayed women in a less than favourable light and Winman gave us a lesson about the sexism providing a valuable insight for the reader.
Apart from amazing characters, the book is humorous with elements of fantasy, talking trees no less, with themes of homosexuality, single motherhood and war trauma which serves to make the reader more empathic.
The only down side for me was the last section about Evelyn which seemed out of place, repetitive and serving little purpose. I did want to know more about her, what she had done after the war for example but we got very little. I know this chapter has created some controversy and as you can tell, I wasn’t for it.
Apart from that, the writing is sublime, descriptive and evocative of place; the narrative conversational. Check this one out if you can.