Still Life. Sarah Winman.

Winman, Sarah. Still Life. Penguin UK, 2021. F; 3/22.

I’ve run across and read impressive novels based on other classical literature before: A Thousand Acres based on King Lear and The Hours on Mrs. Dalloway. But this long and magnificently (or relentlessly) cheery story is sort of attached to E M Forster’s A Room With a View. The characters and plot fit the older story only very loosely, but what imprints directly is the city: Florence Italy.

It’s a long story and a long book. Toward the end of World War II young Ulysses meets much older art restorer Evelyn and is charmed as they explore partially-destroyed Florence into appreciation of art as an invitation to life-changing joy. It’s one of the deepening and Nabokovian features of this story that over decades apart the two keep closely missing one another in that city. Ulysses returns there after inheriting a magnificent apartment and a pile of money. His wife Pat is an irresistibly sexy singer whose daughter Alys (fathered by another man) Ulysses loves and raises, mostly without the mum, in the warm family atmosphere of the rooming house his huge apartment turns into.

Several fully human characters follow Ulysses from the dingy London pub where he works after the war, to complicate and brighten the Florence pension. This includes an anthropomorphic parrot who just misses feeling cutesy because of spirit-like participation in conversation and plot. Alys grows up and gets into a sweet coming-of-age romance as lesbianism and male gays cohabit with clean blind equanimity. Evelyn travels with her semi-historical gay artist friend. Ulysses’s father made world-globes and the son takes on that trade helped by ever-available artisans and encouragement his work is only temporarily blasted away in the historic 1966 Florentine flood.

The flood’s wrecking many of Florence’s buildings, art, and books is terrible and it felt like there couldn’t be recovery. But in line with the buoyancy of the story people and the city find their way to redemption. I wonder whether it’s our (my) wishful imagining of the end of Covid that makes dream-coming-true in this story credible? Alcohol is joyful not poisonous, love without treachery imbues everything, creativity repeatedly overcomes destruction, good luck and money pop up just as catastrophe threatens. The characters and society are as immune to drowning in fatal disaster as the city, and it is for me Winman’s achievement that that’s accomplished consistently over 450 pages without ever quite evoking nausea from too much sugar and cream.

I’ve visited Florence a few times and tried to describe its adhesive appeal tangentially in my review of Walton’s Or What You Will. Aesthetic magic is subjective of course so can surprise you everywhere or anywhere in the world, but some places seem to bristle with hooks and grab you by your front clothes shouting (or whispering) Pay Attention! something’s going on here that could really changes things. For me Québec City, Prague, Hanoi, Philadelphia, Paris, San Francisco, New York all have a touch of that but Florence does just fine as a metaphor for the thing itself. In this story although there are balancing shadows of tragedy, irony, darkness, it’s a firm consistency of sunshine and joy represented by that place that carry suspension of disbelief.

Is it too much? Well, not for me. I loved this story like I love overdoing custard pie or cheesecake and I seem to have survived losing myself in the experience. Hope you like it too. 8.9/9.3

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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