When, at the start of Sarah Winman’s 2021 book, Still Life, you meet “two English spinsters” bickering over Botticelli, Giotto and Rubens, you might think you’re in for a tale of artistic snobbery. But Evelyn Skinner could not be more human, alive and fascinating. The other woman, not so much; Winman cheekily names her Margaret someone, then drops her from the story.
There’s a hint, in this opening chapter, how fascinating Evelyn will turn out to be (and how beautifully Winman writes); she tears open a fig and presses her thumbs against the soft yielding skin – the erotic sight of its vivid flesh. In the unseen, most guarded part of her, a memory undid her, slowly like a zip.
It’s the end of WW2 in Italy and art historian Evelyn is heading for Florence to rescue masterpieces lost and damaged in battle. The first she discovers in a stinking villa (the Germans shit everywhere before they retreat) – a prized altarpiece of Christ lowered from the cross.
Evelyn‘s trick, throughout the book, is not just her deep knowledge of the objects but her ability to impart to other characters – and the reader- how art touches real life. It’s about feeling, she says, that’s all. People trying to make sense of something they can’t make sense of.
Evelyn’s intriguing in many ways, strung through shifts of period and place, mostly central Italy and London. The final chapter, All About Evelyn, goes back to 1901. Twenty-one years old and unchaperoned (!) in Florence, she embarks on a thrilling secret affair – the hint in Chapter 1 – with the pensione’s pretty maid. She offered me a door into her world. Priceless. She also offers a lot of sex, described with passionate intensity.
Evelyn emboldens an awkward E.M. Room with a View Forster to get out and experience Florentine life.
The other great character in the book, with whose equally unconventional story Evelyn intertwines, is Ulysses Temper. Heroic name, heroic guy. We first meet him, a London working-class private in the Eighth Army, with Evelyn in Italy as he drives her from villa to albergo in his jeep. Kindred spirits from the off, their paths keep almost crossing until they find each other again as Evelyn joins Ulysses’ found family in 1966.
This clan, a mismash of exiles from Ulysses’ London local and a few Italian mavericks, muster in Florence where Ulysses – thanks to an incident in the war – settles. These wonderfully original characters, bound by mutual humanity, make a web of enchanting relationships. There’s even a magical parrot, Claude, who doesn’t just talk and think, he influences the plot!
The third great character is Florence, the Renaissance city itself. If you’ve never been – or.can’t go thanks to Covid – reading this book is almost as good the real thing. Like Thomas Mann’s exquisite portrait of a diseased Venice, Winman’s evocations of the 1966 floods which devastated the Tuscan capital are heart-wrenching.
Best read in ages!
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Coming up next – Part Two: the original Ulysses – Odysseus, and his Odyssey by Homer…