“I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal,” Mr. Emerson tells Lucy Honeychurch in E.M. Forster’s novel A Room With a View. It’s a beautiful sentiment, one that Sarah Winman incorporates into Still Life, along with other enduring realities, such as the transcendence of art and the pain of war.
Winman’s fourth novel is a gambol through some of the major events of the mid-20th century, and much of the action occurs in Italy. It opens in 1944, as Ulysses Temper, a young private in the British army, is driving through Florence. Evelyn Skinner, a 64-year-old English art historian, waves down his jeep. She’s in Italy to “liaise with the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives officers” and locate artworks sequestered from museums and churches. He gives her a ride.
From there, Winman takes the reader through 35 years of world history, from World War II to the moon landing to natural disasters in Florence, as seen through the eyes of her characters.
After the war, Ulysses returns to London, where he resumes work on the globe-manufacturing business he took over from his father. He spends time at a pub called the Stout and Parrot, where denizens include Col, the owner; piano player Pete; Ulysses’ unfaithful spouse, Peg; their daughter, Alys; and a blue parrot named Claude.
An unexpected inheritance prompts Ulysses to leave London and return to Florence. Winman’s plot at times relies too heavily on moments of serendipity like this one, but readers will nonetheless be charmed by Ulysses’ attempts to set up a pensione, as well as by Evelyn’s parallel story and her many lovers, and the ways in which her life and Ulysses’ become linked.
Still Life is, ultimately, a celebration of Italy, with loving descriptions of its buildings and countryside, of old women gossiping on stone benches, of Tuscany’s “thick forests of chestnut trees and fields of sunflowers.” It’s light yet satisfying, like foamed milk atop a cappuccino.