Still Life by Sarah Winman – Book Review

Title: Still Life (review copy)

Author: Sarah Winman

Genre/Themes: Historical Fiction, Saga, Drama

Blurb from Goodreads

By the bestselling, prize-winning author of When God was a Rabbit and Tin Man, Still Life is a beautiful, big-hearted, richly tapestried story of people brought together by love, war, art, flood… and the ghost of E.M. Forster.

It’s 1944 and in the ruined wine cellar of a Tuscan villa, as the Allied troops advance and bombs fall around them, two strangers meet and share an extraordinary evening together.

Ulysses Temper is a young British solider and one-time globe-maker, Evelyn Skinner is a sexagenarian art historian and possible spy. She has come to Italy to salvage paintings from the ruins and relive her memories of the time she encountered EM Forster and had her heart stolen by an Italian maid in a particular Florentine room with a view.

These two unlikely people find kindred spirits in each other and Evelyn’s talk of truth and beauty plants a seed in Ulysses mind that will shape the trajectory of his life – and of those who love him – for the next four decades.

Moving from the Tuscan Hills, to the smog of the East End and the piazzas of Florence, Still Life is a sweeping, mischievous, richly-peopled novel about beauty, love, family and fate.

My Review

I read Sarah Winman’s debut novel, When God was a Rabbit, a good few years ago and I remember it fondly. It was a compelling read that focused on the relationships between its characters but had a delightful sprinkling of whimsy throughout. So I was sure I would adore Still Life. It’s got rave reviews from practically everyone who’s read it with people especially saying that it truly transported them away from the moroseness of lockdown life. I was absolutely convinced it would be a five star favourite.

How very wrong I was!

Unlike seemingly everyone else who’s read Still Life I was most definitely not charmed by it. I found it to be quite the laborious read that felt entirely interminable. By about 40% I was practically giving up the will to live so bored was I but I trudged on in the hopes that I would find something within the pages to delight me…

Sadly I never did.

To start with I loathed the way the novel was structured. It started off with an interesting enough character in Evelyn Skinner and I thought okay, she’s kinda quirky in a good way and she could be an interesting lead character…

Only for her to disappear completely until about the 43% mark when she showed up briefly and then disappeared again until close to the end!

I couldn’t understand why the author would start with this appealingly interesting character only to have her vanish.

At the beginning of the novel Evelyn has a very brief run in with the character of Ulysses, a British soldier in Italy 1944. Honestly it was so brief I struggled to recall it in any detail as the book went on. But apparently this meeting was key to the novel’s plot as it had a rippling effect in the future lives of both characters… I mean okay if you say so but really it was such an underwhelming meeting between these two characters that I could never understand the how and the why of their supposed connection.

But connected they were apparently.

The story then randomly shifted to England and to Ulysses’ neighbourhood where it focused on his local pub, his wife, a bunch of his friends… honestly I struggled to keep tabs on who was who in all this scene jumping because everyone’s personality was pretty much defined by one trait: they were all “quirky”.

And to make matters worse when the characters engaged in dialogue there were no quotation marks because I guess the author somehow thought that would add some extra whimsy. It only added to my frustration as it made it unnecessarily tricky to accurately follow conversations, and it added to the difficulty I had with discerning which character was which as it made the characters’ personalities bleed together.

Anyway, things happened and Ulysses found himself moving to Italy to live and the book was basically about his life there over a number of decades.

But there was no real plot.

The book felt like a random series of events that were strung out over the course of the novel. Sometimes the book would follow the stories of a given calendar year, and other times it would hurtle through a bunch of years.

Oh and sprinkled throughout were these passages that would tell us of events that were to come which just irked me so much. Because there was no suspense to the novel, nothing that ever truly engaged me and made me want to tear through the book to find out what happened.

Instead it just sauntered along to a most unsatisfying ending which for some baffling reason was preceded by a flashback to Evelyn’s first visit to Italy as a 20/21 year old.

I’m so disappointed by this novel. I feel like I was reading it for what seems like forever but I got no pay off at the end. I never cared for any of the characters because none of them ever felt real for me.

  • Ulysses was quite frankly rather dull.
  • Cressy was just a whole bunch of ridiculous quirks that we were supposed to find charming but instead just made my eyes roll.
  • Alys was a walking stereotype of teenage angst and anger that moved on through to become a feisty adult.
  • Evelyn started out interesting but just became a series of overwrought cliches.
  • The contessa was likewise.
  • Col, Pete, Des, and Massimo were basically interchangeable as characters in my mind as none of them had anything that truly made them feel unique.
  • Peg was preposterously written; she was supposedly troubled and complicated but instead what she was was criminally underdeveloped because we never truly got to the core of her character. I mean I could say that about every character because they all felt like a bunch of fanciful ideas rather than wholly developed people.
  • And don’t start me on the bird.

This book promised so much; it aimed to tell a story of love and friendship, and about how the people you surround yourself with become your family… but it just was overly saccharine and far too cutesy for this reader. The only thing that made it not a complete bust was all the talk of food; pasta will always be the way to my heart.

But overall this wasn’t for me.

*An e-copy was kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley for honest review*

  • Publication Date: 1st June 2021
  • Publisher: 4th Estate

Other Works by Sarah Winman I’ve Reviewed

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5 thoughts on “Still Life by Sarah Winman – Book Review

  1. I love reading your reviews, Éimhear! 😂 The author’s name sounded so familiar and it was when you said she’s the author of Tin Man that it clicked for me! I still have that on my TBR although I did start it and found it a bit of a slog so I put it aside. This one definitely doesn’t sound like it’d work for me either!


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