Postal Reading group
April 2023
Notes on the book Still life by Sarah Winman

My introduction to Sarah Winman’s books was through this group back in 2019/20 when Tin man was circulated. I recall that the book was generally well received, even if I had some reservations. In some respects the present title, Still life, is a rather different book; I did enjoy this, although it has still been well received by many. This book arrived while I was on holiday, and I have had only two weeks in which to read it and attempt this review, although, happily, I had read the book myself about a year ago, as it would otherwise be difficult to do justice to this book in such a short space of time.

The basic outline is that a young English soldier, Ulysses, meets Evelyn Skinner in the wine cellar of a Tuscan villa during the Allied advance in 1944. Evelyn is an art historian ostensibly advising on the salvage of works of art. The two find a kindred spirit which will affect Ulysses’ life over the next four decades. Back in London he immerses himself in the life of the eccentric public house, the Stoat and Parrot, until an unexpected inheritance tempts him back to Italy where it all began.

Still life is a fairly substantial book which covers a lot of ground between Italy and London, and spans about four decades from the Second World War, taking in the flooding in Florence in 1966. This is also a book with a large cast: the rather motly collection of eccentric characters at the pub where Ulysses works, including Claude the parrot who quotes Shakespere; Evelyn and her colleagues; families in Italy, including the man who Ulysses saves from suicide and Massimo wo becomes a great fried, and the vast numbers of residents and visitors who are involved with the salvage operation after the flooding in Florence.

With so many characters, there is clearly plentry of opportunity for interaction between them, and the book does not dissapoint. This is very much a book about friendships as much as it is about the characters themselves. Winman has done a particularly good job of following this diverse cast over the course of four decades, emphasising the way in which their lives interconnect. Although a rather different story to her earlier novel, Tin man, there are similarities in the way that the books follow the relationships between characters. In my opinion, however, Still life has done a significantly better job of this and achieved so much more. While I remember having some reservations about Tin man and losing interest, this has not been the case here.

One way in which the two books differ, and which made the present book so much more enjoyable, are the delightful eccentricities of many of the central characters. While this may not be to everyone’s taste, I felt that the eccentricities added a very human touch to the characters. While slightly surreal scenes are not always an effective element of a novel, I believe that they work well here, and seem natural enough to make the characters more realistic, not less, while also serving to make them more interesting people. Additionally the sheer size of the cast in this book provides more scope for interesting relationships. Beyond that, the author’s descriptions of some of the great European cities and how thay have changed alongside the people in the book, are another particularly strong point. Against this, the Morris car factory in Oxford from Tin man provides a less promising setting.

My only real criticism of this book is that it is very much centered on, and driven by, the characters. The storyline and plot are less strong, and especially for what is a fairly long book, with events taking place over a span of four decades, I would have expected a much more detailed plot. This would seem to be another similarity to Tin man, which I felt had a similarly weak plot, even considering that it was a much shorter book. However, the reason why Still life has succeeded for me is that I found the central character so much more interesting. Another criticism is that this book seems to be one of an increasing number where the author has made the choice not to use quotation marks for speech. In a book with so much dialogue this makes for a more difficult read.

Ultimately, like art, this book may divide opinion. If you are looking for a well-paced plot with a strong storyline, then Still life is probably not the book for you. On the other hand, if its the characters and human relationships which make a book, then you’ll probably love this. Perhaps Evelyn, the art historian, summed it up when she said “it’s about feeling, Ulysses, that’s all.” My personal thoughts on this book are probably somewhere between the two: I would have liked a stronger plot, and I thought the first part of the book was rather slow until the connections between characters became apparent. However, Ulysses and the eccentric cast was sufficient to keep my interest, and in that sense it succeeded where Tin man failed. With that in mind I am pleased to be able to recommend this book.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler