Still Life by Sarah Winman

I picked up Sarah Winman’s new novel, Still Life, with vague memories of enjoying one of her earlier books, When God Was a Rabbit. That was ten years ago and although she has had two other books published since then, I never got round to reading either of them. The pretty cover of Still Life caught my eye and the Italian setting sounded appealing, so I thought I would give this one a try.

The novel opens in wartime Tuscany in 1944 with a chance meeting between two very different people: Evelyn Skinner, almost sixty-four years old, is an art historian who has come to Italy to try to salvage important works of art; Ulysses Temper is a young British soldier, formerly a globe-maker from London. As the Allies advance across Italy, a brief friendship forms between Evelyn and Ulysses before they are parted and return to their separate lives.

For most of the novel, we follow Ulysses and his friends, first back at home in London and later in Florence, where some of them decide to relocate after the war. There’s Ulysses’ ex-wife, the talented but troubled Peg and her young daughter, Alys; Col who runs the Stoat and Parrot pub and Pete the pianist; Old Cress, who talks to trees and has visions which have a habit of coming true; and a Shakespeare-quoting blue parrot called Claude. It took me a while to warm to these characters, but eventually I became quite fond of some of them, particularly Cress and Alys. None of them are perfect – they all have their flaws and all make mistakes – but they feel like real and believable human beings.

Evelyn, though, appears only occasionally after that opening scene and we have to wait almost until the end of the novel to hear her story – by which time I found I’d lost interest in her and would have preferred to continue reading about Ulysses and the others. Evelyn’s story, which should have been fascinating as it involved a meeting with EM Forster and a pre-war romance with an Italian maid, felt as if it had been squeezed into the end of the book as an afterthought and in my opinion would have worked better if it had unfolded gradually alongside the other storylines.

The novel is beautifully written, there are some lovely descriptions of Florence and the influence of Forster’s A Room With a View can be seen in several different ways throughout the story. With a timespan of several decades, Winman also writes about various historical events that take place during that period; for example, there’s a memorable section set during the devastating flood of the Arno river in 1966. Unfortunately, there was one thing I really disliked about Winman’s writing in this book – and that was the lack of speech marks. I’m never sure what authors are trying to achieve in leaving out basic punctuation. A more ‘literary’ style? A stream of consciousness feel? Whatever it is, it never works for me and I end up just finding it distracting and annoying.

Still Life wasn’t completely successful with me, then, but I did enjoy getting to know the characters and spending some time in Italy in virtual form, which is the closest I will get to a holiday abroad this year!

Thanks to 4th Estate for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 28/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 1/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

20 Books of Summer – 2021

20 Books of Summer, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books, is a very simple idea: make a list of twenty books (there are also ten and fifteen book options) and read them during the summer months. However, it’s more difficult than it sounds, and although this will be my fifth year of taking part, I have still never managed to read all twenty books on my list!

This year’s 20 Books of Summer starts on Tuesday 1st June and finishes on Wednesday 1st September. I have listed below the books I would like to read, but I don’t expect to have time for all of them and will probably end up reading lots of books that aren’t on the list instead! These are a mixture of review copies, books from my Classics Club list and books that have been waiting on my TBR for a long time. I will also have three books to read for an Agatha Christie challenge I’m participating in, but I don’t know what they will be yet.


1. Still Life by Sarah Winman
2. Death in Zanzibar by MM Kaye
3. A Corruption of Blood by Ambrose Parry
4. The Green Gauntlet by RF Delderfield
5. The Women of Troy by Pat Barker
6. Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym
7. The Lily and the Lion by Maurice Druon
8. Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb
9. The Ionian Mission by Patrick O’Brian
10. The Last Daughter by Nicola Cornick
11. These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer
12. The Echo Chamber by John Boyne
13. The Reckoning by Sharon Penman
14. The Infernal Riddle of Thomas Peach by Jas Treadwell
15. High Rising by Angela Thirkell
16. Confusion by Elizabeth Jane Howard
17. Red Adam’s Lady by Grace Ingram
18. St Martin’s Summer by Rafael Sabatini
19. Goodbye, Mr Chips by James Hilton
20. The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude


Have you read any of these? Which one should I read first? And will you be joining in with 20 Books of Summer this year?