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

When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

When God was a Rabbit is the story of Eleanor Maud Portman (known as Elly) and is divided into two parts. In the first part, Elly tells us about her childhood growing up in England in the 1970s and introduces us to some of the important people in her life, including her older brother, Joe, her best friend, Jenny Penny – and a pet rabbit called God. We then jump forward fifteen years and rejoin Elly as an adult in the 1990s. Over the years the family experience more than their fair share of dramas and disasters, though there are some good times too. I don’t want to go into too much detail about what happens to them, but the Portmans’ lives are affected by murder, illness, kidnapping, child abuse and terrorism, to name just a few of the tragic events covered in the book.

I enjoyed When God was a Rabbit but I did think it had a few flaws. I often complain that books are too slow for me but if anything, the pace of this one was too fast. I felt that some of the things that happened to Elly and her family deserved to be explored in more depth, but instead the story moved quickly on to a new topic and a new tragedy – it was hard to believe that so many things could possibly happen to one family. I can appreciate that this is fiction and doesn’t have to be realistic, but I was still overwhelmed by the sheer amount of issues the book touches on.

I’m younger than Elly but a lot of the things from her childhood felt familiar to me too. I think for people of a certain age (especially those born around the time Elly was, in 1968) this is a book that could be enjoyed almost as much for the nostalgia and the memories as for the plot. Elly’s personal story is set against a backdrop of historical events including the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, John Lennon’s death in 1980 and the 9/11 tragedy in 2001. These events and others all affected Elly, either directly or indirectly, and again this is where I felt Sarah Winman was trying to pack too much into one novel.

I don’t want to sound too negative though, because I really was impressed by When God was a Rabbit. I loved the first half of the book and although the second half didn’t have the same feel of magic and innocence, I still found it compelling. I wanted to read on and find out what had happened in the intervening years and how the story would end for Elly, Joe, Jenny Penny and the others. Despite the whimsical title and cover, this book deals with some heavy themes and beneath the charm and humour there’s also a lot of sadness and poignancy. I often had tears in my eyes while I was reading but there were an equal number of scenes that made me smile (especially the school nativity play!). And although I had mixed feelings about this book, I thought the good points outweighed the bad. I would advise you to try it for yourself and see what you think!