Still Life review: Sarah Winman’s exquisite testimony to life, love and art is a masterpiece

Still life

Arah Winman

4th domain € 18.99

There is a passage right in the middle of this novel about art, life, love and a thousand other things, which distills its essence.

In the passage, art historian Evelyn Skinner talks about still lifes.

“The world of domestic cooking is a female world… Men can enter… but don’t work there and yet work is all that women do there. It’s a world of reliability… fixed and mundane. Yet within these [still life painting] something powerful form is retained: Continuity. Memory. Family.”

These three words form the basis of this exquisite book.

In war-torn Italy in 1944, Evelyn Skinner, an English art historian in her sixties, meets Ulysses Temper, a young Allied soldier from London, and they accidentally discover a repository of hidden artwork.

The experience is to weld them together for life, although they don’t know it yet.

Each survives the war and returns to England, Evelyn as a teacher, Ulysses to his two old friends, Col and Cressie, who run a pub in London’s East End, and to his wife Peg.

Peg was not faithful and had a child from his affair. Odysseus must be embittered, but love and bitterness cannot coexist in the same soul.

Flighty Peg leaves her baby daughter and seeks her fortune elsewhere, leaving the baby in Uly’s care. Meanwhile, an old Italian recluse whose life Uly saved during the war bequeaths him his substantial property in Florence.

Uly, Cress, Claude le Perroquet and The Kid leave London for Florence, transforming this large house into a boarding house. And life is sweet. We miss their old community of London, but Florence and its people more than make up for it.

It is the art that ignites the imaginations of nearly every character in this novel and Winman writes about it with a confident pen, never overwhelming the reader with unnecessary technical details – though she may well send them over. Google Images to feast on any job. is currently on the page.

In 1966, the Arno river came out of its banks and the whole city of Florence was left under water. More than a hundred people die in the floods and thousands of works of art in Florence’s galleries, libraries and churches are covered in mud, sediment and worse.

Artists from everywhere flock to Florence to participate, in every way possible, in a vast project of restoration of works of art. These people will be known in art history books as Mud Angels.

Evelyn, now in her eighties but lively as a puppy, is one of those angels who rush to Florence to do what she can.

She is going to find Ulysses, for the first time since their meeting during the war. The rest is history – and the rest is potentially a spoiler, too.

There are not enough superlatives to contain the breadth and beauty of this novel. It explores the very foundations of the sense of family; is it really a collective gene pool or does the heart of the family mean something quite different?

As well as being a story of ordinary lives surrounded by extraordinary art, it manages to be an extremely entertaining short encyclopedia of the history of Italian art, and in particular Florentine.

It is a fictional biography of not two lives, but of several, and a chronicle of the interweaving of these lives. It’s a celebration of beauty, a story of what Evelyn describes as “the continuity”. Memory. Family.’

It is above all a testimony of love.


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About Glenn Gosselin

Glenn Gosselin

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