Still Life by Sarah Winman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I fell in love, and then out of love, with this novel. The writing – which utilizes an expansive vocabulary that had me reaching for the dictionary – is a delight. The enticing settings – London and Florence – form a seamless but essential backdrop to the narrative. The use of magical realism, for example a talking parrot that is wiser than some of the human characters, and trees that listen and answer back, add a certain quirkiness. I also enjoyed the judicious repetition of ‘Peg’s tune’. ‘Clack, clack, clack across the stones she went. Hips swaying, arms swinging.’
That said, I found the book a chore to read, mainly due to the absence of quotation marks, which is not only irritating but also gets in the way of the narrative flow. Who is talking? Is anyone talking? Backtrack and work it out. My patience, at times, wore thin.
For most of the book, I had no idea where the story was going, and not in a good way. At times I wondered if there was any point at all. In fact, I could imagine entire chapters adapted into a feel-good British film, with the usual cast of ‘senior’ actors – Maggie Smith, Judy Dench, Bill Nighy – bumbling about together in a foreign land, enjoying the food but largely ignoring the inhabitants.
Finally, on page 373 (of the edition I read), came the critical question about Evelyn’s role in WWII, which she answers with an abrupt ‘Of course I was’. In the last chapter, aptly named ‘All About Evelyn’, she proceeds with the slow reveal. Yet it isn’t what I expected at all. Her backstory shot off into a coming-of-age frolic that happened forty years before the war. Frustrated, I kept reading, hoping that Evelyn would find her way back to the crucial question and fill us in. She did not. And then the book ended.
Overall, a work of literary fiction that will enthrall lovers of language. A good story, interesting characters, and settings to die for. Apart from my minor criticisms above, the novel is highly recommended.