Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 3, 2022

Still Life, by Sarah Winman

I was expecting to like Sarah Winman’s Still Life.  It’s had very positive reviews, it was longlisted for the 2022 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, and I liked her previous novel Tin Man, declaring that it was rare to find a novel that is so much about love and kindness and friendship without descending into sentimentality.

Alas, Still Life is an English fantasy of Tuscan postwar life: sunshine and weather mild enough for shorts; good food and nice wine; appealing scenery round every cobblestoned corner complemented by splendid Florentine art; and a language easy to learn between the sheets should you need to know more than the vocabulary for food.  Yes, there are occasional problems such as the 1966 flood, but such difficulties are overcome by the niceness of people who come together as a genial community, and Brits who flit in to help without any clear idea of what to do can still manage to access the essentials of life such as a bath and a decent meal. Plus, this Florence is, despite Italy being a Catholic country, easy-going about gays and lesbians; and it’s tolerant of stuffy English people and an excess of tourists.  Most remarkable of all, they have an impressive ability to transition briskly from a military dictatorship under Mussolini with no hard feelings about who was on which side.

All this while Britain was enduring postwar austerity and Germany was rebuilding the ruins.

The story starts outside Florence during WW2 with the meeting of Evelyn Skinner the art historian and the soldier Ulysses Temper, named not after the Greek hero but after a racehorse.  This detail is important because it establishes Ulysses as an ordinary unpretentious fellow who is nonetheless charmed by the whimsical Evelyn and he earnestly imbibes lessons about Florentine art.  While there are inconclusive hints that Evelyn might actually be a spy, if that’s what she is then her cover is not very convincing.  It does seem somewhat unlikely that any English art conserver, much less a woman, would be dodging artillery fire on the front line, and indeed if she or any other English person were there at any time when the Germans were there as well they would have interned her as a matter of course.

Besides, surely Italy  had plenty of art historians of its own…

Anyway…

This meeting takes place as the characters are cheerfully looting a Tuscan cellar after the German retreat.  While I suspect that the Tuscans wouldn’t have begrudged their liberators, it doesn’t alter the fact that the military is not supposed to help itself to the possessions of the locals, who presumably need what remains of their surviving stock to earn a living after the war.  Italian superintendents are mentioned but they seem to be there to protect what remains of the art after the German departure, and it wasn’t made clear whether these characters in the cellar were there by invitation or not, or whether they paid for the splendid bottles of wine which they drank with such sophisticated appreciation.  A minor detail, but truth be told, I am always more likely to notice minor details if I’m not much engaged in a novel.  And I was often bored by this one.  Yes, bored. This book is much too long for itself.

Anyway Ulysses the dutiful soldier meets the art historian Evelyn across a social divide bridged by war, and then the war moves on and they are parted by more than just the decades between their ages.  He goes back to Britain to an inconclusive relationship with a rather bad-tempered woman called Peg, but with the proceeds of a lucky bet, goes back to live in Florence with an assortment of other male companions and Peg’s school-age daughter by another man (for whom she’s still carrying a torch).  The novel then proceeds to tease the reader with reunions that would have occurred had only Evelyn done this or Ulysses done that.  Although I did entertain what turned out to be a fruitless interest in the spying side of things and I  wondered if Ulysses would ever stop hankering after Peg and find the love of his life, I grew tired of these inconclusive meanderings of the plot, such as it was.

Why then did I continue reading the book?  I chose it from the TBR after reading Mercé Rodoredo’s Death in Spring, because I wanted something less harrowing. And I knew how that this book is dearly loved by many people, so I kept expecting that something would illuminate it for me, and then I would love it too.

It just didn’t happen for me.

Read the reviews of readers who loved it here, and here and here.

Author: Sarah Winman
Title: Still Life
Design and Illustrations by Ellie Game
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2021
ISBN: 9780008283360, pbk., 436 pages
Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books.

 


Responses

  1. “surely Italy had plenty of art historians of its own…”
    Has this ever stopped us Brits from declaring we know more? I think not. Of course, England was declared to be no longer listening to experts a few years ago, so this may no longer hold true.
    Its a shame you couldn’t see past the flaws of this novel. I know what you mean about noticing the details more if a book fails to engage. The details should be the things that delight.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s true…
      But I know a little bit about the chaos of the front line because my mother was in the ATS harvesting spare parts from damaged allied military vehicles. I just didn’t find any of the beginning credible and that probably set me against it from the start.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think it’s not just recently that speakers of English and lots of over languages moved from all over the world. My grandfather Dan had to rescue gay male university friend of Winnie’s (my grandmother) who was also in Cairo during WWII from being courtmarshalled from the excesses of his sex life, which were frowned on in the NZ army. Wartime Italy was much more complicated in many ways than some other countries. The fantasy is that the main characters have money through inheritance and gambling, and yes, that is kind of fantastic, but even a little money would have insulated from the realities of Italian society, which was used to a relatively privileged expat community, which did included gay people. Even a little money probably did go further in post Mussolini Italy (remember, he was captured and killed by partisans before the end of the war – he had enjoyed a high level of popularity from the 20s and the 30s but war and German occupation eventually shifted that.

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    • It’s true that until recently, the post war period involved the greatest movement of peoples in history, and the vast majority of people were trying to get out of Europe not into it. I’m going to assume that Winman researched this novel thoroughly but also that she took some liberties to make her story work. From what I know, from people who were there, and from reading, is that for obvious reasons, not the least of which was the difficulty of feeding and accommodating them, it was extremely difficult for people to travel into war-ravaged Europe, and not just in the immediate aftermath. And for Brits who wanted to migrate away from postwar austerity, there was the whole of the Commonwealth on offer, with no visa, language or reconstruction problems.
      But I would have overlooked all that if the story had worked for me, and it didn’t.

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  3. Also, though Italy was on the wrong side, it wasn’t seen by us as an aggressor in the same way as Germany, and didn’t face the same levels of punishment during the war. And it was no longer fighting against Britain once the partisans did for Mussolini..

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    • Yes, that’s true. But a political decision to change sides, as Italy did, doesn’t mean that supporters were all onboard together from that moment on. There would have been repercussions for collaborators and there would have been resentments and confusion from people on both sides of the divide.

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  4. And men in Italy and in Europe would have inevitably been treated differently from most women and found it easier to enjoy a high level of privilege. But Evelyn was I think a wealthy woman born into money.

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    • And that always makes a difference.

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  5. in the middle or later part of period of time covered by the novel, the 1950s and early 60s, an English journalist, socialite and crime writer Nancy Spain wrote several novels and memoirs which are currently being reissued by Virago and Weidenfeld & Nicolson respectively – one was about trying to buy a house in Greece, a society which was much more conservative for many of the locals than for the expats and tourists who travelled there. She died aged 47 in a plane crash in 1964.

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    • True, I’m thinking mainly of the beginning of the novel, when they first set off for Italy in 1952. That’s only seven years after the war. At that time Britain hadn’t even rehoused all its people, and my grandmother’s house still had unrepaired bomb damage in the middle 50s. By the late 50s, with the help of the Marshall Plan, Italy’s economy was doing really well, but it would have been a different story earlier on.

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  6. I’m with you on this one Lisa, we may be the only two though! Everyone else I know adored this book, but I couldn’t get into it at all and abandoned it fairly early on.

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  7. I also didn’t like this book. Just as you want to hear from like minded people when you’ve loved a book. It’s also heartening to discover that you are not the only one going against popular opinion when you haven’t enjoyed something as much as you thought you would. Like you I loved Tin Man and expected a book of at least the same calibre. I thought that talking bird was ridiculous and in fact all the dialogue in the first half (in the English pub) seemed very stilted and staccato. Things improved once Ulysses arrived in Florence and I read on hoping he would meet up with Evelyn eventually but we didn’t even get that satisfaction.

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    • Well, this is affirming, thank you. I went to bed last night well out on a limb and not really looking forward to further discussion about this book and this morning there’s unexpected agreement from you, and Simon, Mallika and Carmel who felt the same as I did.
      It’s strange isn’t it, how we both read on waiting for The Reunion, as if we’d been lured into a love interest when in fact she was twice his age!

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  8. I was quite literally about to start this book tonight (what’s left of the night!). I’ll adjust my expectations slightly after reading your review.

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    • I hope I haven’t spoiled it for you!

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  9. I’m another who gave up on this without finishing it. Tedious and far fetched

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    • It certainly failed as an homage to A Room with a View.
      I really wish authors would write their own stories and not piggyback off the classics.

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  10. Oh, sorry this didn’t work for you. I couldn’t get into it at the start, in fact struggled, but once they moved to Italy I really loved it

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    • Memories of Florence were the best part…
      And I did like the idea that a a family doesn’t have to be nuclear or biological.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It was the bond that formed between the family that I really ended up loving; and the parrot, Claude?

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  11. I found the novel most disappointing too. Kind of scrappy and dead. Descriptions of Florence were quite Ok at times, but a novel must be more than nice accounts of famous locations. One of those books I didn’t finish reading.

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    • Ah, Carmel… ‘scrappy and dead’ — an interesting choice of adjectives. Because those long, long slabs of dialogue ought to have been lively… and yet they weren’t. ..

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  12. Glad to see this review as the book was so super hyped and, as churlish as this sounds *ducks for cover*, to me Winman exemplifies that dull plodding modern Brit fiction that isn’t to my tastes but seems to get so much attention! I have not been tempted by this one and now I’m glad to see I was probably right to stay away!

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    • I hear you.
      Hopefully it’s just a phase.

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  13. Perhaps if I’d been to Florence, I might have liked it less. However, I am currently enjoying ‘Telltale: Reading Writing Remembering’
    by Carmel Bird. Partly because I know (and love) the Cataract Gorge and I was delighted to discover that we attended the same primary school (albeit I wasn’t there until the 1960s). The world can be a small place.

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    • It is lovely when you’ve been to somewhere that’s in a book.
      I love Cataract Gorge too, stunning!

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  14. I was tempted by this just because of the Florentine setting but haven’t parted with my pennies yet. It sounds a mess of a plot so I’ll put my savings to use elsewhere. Thanks for the warning!

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    • Yes, but don’t forget that lots of other people love it. My strategy with books like this (when forewarned that is) is to borrow it from the library.

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  15. Nooooo….lol.
    Thanks for the link!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Umm, I suspect this wouldn’t have worked for me either… I’ve found myself at odds with the general view of a book before and it’s a bit unsettling but we can’t all love the same books!

    Like


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