Still Life by Sarah Winman
Do not be deterred by the lack of punctuation (Winman uses no quotation marks for dialogue) or by the strangely truncated sentences. Because once you’ve embraced these idiosyncrasies you will find yourself swept away by the sheer beauty of this book.
Beginning in 1944 in Tuscany, a young British soldier by the name of Ulysses Temper (what a name!) meets Evelyn Skinner, a sexagenarian art historian who is helping to salvage paintings from the rubble. From this chance meeting, we follow their post-war paths, and wonder at the effect their meeting has on their lives.
Winman has created characters that will stay with you long after you finish the book with a sigh. She celebrates the importance of friendship and of following your heart. There are elements of the fantastic which further enhanced the sometimes dreamlike quality of the story (how could you not fall in love with a blue Amazonian parrot named Claude who quotes Shakespeare at the most appropriate moments?)
I will say no more, but instead finish my review with a few of my favourite quotes:
[Alys] was five. Would she remember that moment as completely as [Ulysses] saw it? Probably not. But she would remember the day because years later, she would tell people about it. The cool of the floor on her bare legs, the lines she’d made on the page. She would remember how a morning became an afternoon…how Ulysses’ gaze made her think she was something, or something enough. How she saw a woman dressed as a man and thought how interesting life could be, might be. The type of day that showed her where she ended, and the world began.
There are moments in life, so monumental and still, that the memory can never be retrieved without a catch to the throat or an interruption to the beat of the heart. Can never be retrieved without the rumbling disquiet of how close that moment came to not having happened at all.
So, time heals. Mostly. Sometimes carelessly. And in unsuspecting moments, the pain catches and reminds one of all that’s been missing. The fulcrum of what might have been. But then it passes. Winter moves into spring and swallows return. The proximity of new skin returns to the sheets. Beauty does what is required. Jobs fulfil and conversations inspire. Loneliness becomes a mere Sunday. Scattered clothes. Empty bowls. Rotting fruit. Passing time. But still life in all its beauty and complexity.