Book Review: Still Life

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This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“The scale of man – spatially – is about midway between the atom and the star”

I didn’t seek out Still Life when it was released in hardback. Although I have enjoyed all Sarah Winman’s previous novels, Tin Man was such a tour de force – and achieved in less than two hundred pages – that the prospect of a longer read didn’t, at the time, appeal. I am, however, glad I gave into temptation – curiosity – when the beautifully bound paperback was offered. This novel is magnificent, and I don’t use that descriptor lightly.

The story being told encompasses art and life and love – a sweeping saga that explores the many lenses through which these subjects may be viewed when minds are open to new experiences. It engenders an appreciation of the moments that matter, lighting up the mundane and offering a deeply felt sense of optimism – a willingness to embrace change for what it may bring. Above all it is a story of friendships that enrich and nurture – a reminder that families exist beyond the bounds of blood relations.

Opening in the Tuscan hills towards the end of the Second World War, a chance encounter brings Evelyn Skinner and Ulysses Temper together. Evelyn is a sexagenarian art historian, in Italy to seek out important artworks moved to hidden spaces due to the conflict. Ulysses is a young British soldier who, having survived thus far has hopes of returning to his wife, Peg, in London. Over bottles of plundered fine wine, Evelyn and Ulysses talk of their lives as reflected in the paintings recovered from a cellar. By the time they part from their brief acquaintance, each has had an effect on the other that they will carry through the following decades.

The setting moves to East London where the remaining key players are introduced.  Col – rough around the edges – runs his pub and worries about his daughter, ‘a woman in body and child in mind.’ Peggy Temper works for Col and is watched over by Cress, an ex-dockworker possessing uncanny foresight. Pete is a skilled pianist, always on the cusp of musical success. Finally there is Claude, an inspired if somewhat bizarre addition. Around this group revolve further colourful characters – the shady, the generous and the critical. Each adds depth to the development of the unfolding tale.

The war ends and Ulysses returns to London where he lives and works at Col’s pub. There are births and deaths, marriages and divorces, fights and fortunes that prove life-changing. The setting moves mostly to Florence, a city portrayed as almost mystically magical in its affect on those willing to embrace its ways. Around the edges of everything is how art in its many forms can change a person’s outlook – art that is valued for how it makes one feel.

Evelyn’s story is told separately to that of Ulysses. She comes from wealth and has used her bohemian privilege to enjoy a lifestyle she has chosen for herself. In beautiful prose the author presents an understanding of artists through the ages. Evelyn’s coterie of the famous shines brightly but, for me, lacked the depth of the relocated cockneys. Evelyn’s life is one of ease through which she moves effortlessly, enchanting those encountered with her knowledge and repartee.

Although Ulysses and his friends have known hardship, they become beneficiaries of luck and coincidence. Some of this may appear farcical but is made acceptable through skilful rendition. I found this the more interesting storyline and it is rightly the focus of attention. Sections follow the group through the decades of the fifties, sixties and seventies as they build their lives on opportunities offered and worked with.

In 1966 a devastating flood destroyed lives, homes and businesses in Florence. The devastation caused is vividly depicted – a deeply moving account of loss and resilience. This is just one event in which the group of immigrants prove it is possible to live and be accepted abroad if willing to assimilate. Their experiences are in contrast to many visitors, those who seek out food familiar to them and complain of locals’ behaviour.

“The usual movement of English tourists, oblivious to life around them, looking for answers in their guidebooks.”

The tale being told is one that sparks many emotions with its richly mixed palette of joy, hope and humour, alongside grief and forbearance. The characters may benefit from financial good fortune but at the core of their being is the unconditional love and care they offer each other and those who befriend them.

Any Cop?: A story of generosity of spirit that truly enriches – a movingly memorable but ultimately joyous read.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Tin Man

“And I wonder what the sound of a heart breaking might be. And I think it might be quiet, unperceptively so, and not dramatic at all. Like the sound of an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth.”

Tin Man, by Sarah Winman, is a hauntingly, achingly beautiful story of friendship and love. It opens with a night out at a community hall in 1950 when young mother-to-be, Dora Judd, wins a painting of sunflowers in a raffle, her first ever act of defiance. The timeline then moves to 1996 when Ellis Judd is living alone in a house that has stood still in time for several years. He works nights at a car plant in Oxford. He is struggling to survive.

Ellis’s life, like most people’s, has had its ups and downs. He once had a best friend, Michael, and a wife, Annie. He dreamt of being an artist until his father got him an apprenticeship at the local factory, a potential job for life. Ellis is good at this job where he is accepted and respected. He understands that he has made choices and must somehow learn to live with their consequences.

The story takes the reader back through Ellis’s memories: of his beautiful and loving mother; his distant, angry father; and to Michael, his charismatic friend. Michael came to live with Mabel, his grandmother, when he was twelve years old. Both boys were made welcome in Mabel and Dora’s homes, treated as if their own.

Michael was the exuberant, risk taker in the friendship but it was Ellis who enabled him to shine. When Annie arrives on the scene she is determined not to come between these two young men. The weight of life’s continuing experiences increasingly stunts all of their abilities to fly.

Following on from the short prologue, the book is written in two parts telling the story of Ellis and then of Michael with intersections offering depth to each other’s tales. The language throughout is artistry in prose. The imagery feels so rich it is almost decadent. The grief is raw and heart-rending to read.

The author has woven a love story that is intensely moving yet avoids all the cliches and banality typical of the genre. It does nothing for effect even though deeply affecting. Despite presenting each life lived with a stark actuality, this is a tale oozing colour and possibility.

I have read many excellent books this year but have no hesitation in saying if you buy only one then let it be this. A glorious, heartfelt read.

“I look at these young men, not in envy but in wonder. It is for them now, the beauty of discovery, that endless moonscape of life unfolding.”

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.

Gig Review: Sarah Winman in Bath

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Yesterday evening I returned to the wonderful Topping and Company, an independent bookshop in Bath, to listen to the author, Sarah Winman, read from and talk about her most recent publication, ‘A Year of Marvellous Ways’ (you may read my review here). Toppings is everything a bookshop should be and I am happiest when their regular events are held in the shop itself as the atmosphere and intimacy are hard to beat.

After an enthusiastic introduction from Matt, a member of the Toppings staff, Sarah delighted us with a reading. She gave each of her characters appropriate accents, a skill perhaps learned from her years as an actress. I wasn’t the only member of the audience intrigued by the copy she used which she later explained is an original proof. How I now desire one of those for my collection!

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There followed a question and answer session led by Matt. Sarah was the most relaxed author I have seen at one of these evenings. She seemed to be not just at home in from of her attentive audience but to be enjoying herself.

Sarah explained that she does not plot but rather comes up with ideas which she then slots into the book she is writing. With ‘Marvellous Ways’ she first thought of the ending and then had to work out the build up. She told us that the first eighty pages were the most challenging to write.

Sarah’s prose is exquisite, sometimes magical, but her themes can be dark. She told us that she wishes to use real life situations but to write about them in the way a person remembers, thus they can at times appear surreal. This is how we cope with difficult memories, by remembering fragments of our past as stories we tell ourselves. We may embellish or choose to suppress certain details.

I was particularly interested in her knowledge of the London deep-level shelters, built during the Second World War but only opened to the public in 1944. Before this they were used by the government who did not consider it necessary to protect the working classes. The latter found shelter elsewhere, opening up places which then became known as venues for frowned upon behaviours. Freed from moral strictures people indulged illicit desires.

When bombs did find targets there would be theft from the bodies, looting from property. With the heightened awareness of how life can be suddenly cut short the war years saw a rise in pregnancy and marriage. The years following the war saw a spike in domestic violence as freedoms were curtailed and virtual strangers were forced to live together with little understanding of the stresses the other had endured. These real life situations are not how most look back on the war years. It is easier to remember how films portray bravery and stoicism, to mould reality around stories.

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When questions were opened up to the audience Sarah dealt skillfully with a variety of subjects – from what secret ingredient she would offer Mary Berry (love) to whether she has aspirations to be remembered as a literary great (no). Her answer to the latter was particularly inspiring. She told us that if she attempted to write with a view to achieving literary fame she believes her wings would be clipped. She writes what she wants and relishes this freedom. I was amused when she commented that her publisher is not always given what they expect.

The evening was wrapped up with thanks and appreciation before the signing commenced. Books were proffered and Sarah took the time to chat to each eager fan. Having observed her confidence and relaxed demeanor I asked if she thought her time as an actress might have helped prepare her for such appearances. This earned me a quizzical look. She explained that she feels fortunate to have only encountered warm welcomes from her audiences which makes such meetings enjoyable. I do hope that she did not think I was suggesting she was not being herself. She came across as friendly, passionate and genuine.

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When she has time, Sarah is writing what she described as a short work which she hopes to submit by the summer. From audience reaction and comments on my Twitter feed this morning I am not alone in my eagerness to read whatever story she creates next.

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‘A Year of Marvellous Ways’ is published by Tinder Press and is available to buy now.

Forthcoming events at Toppings bookshop may be viewed by clicking here.

Book Review: A Year of Marvellous Ways

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A Year of Marvellous Ways, by Sarah Winman, is a book to be savoured. The use of language is exquisite, the imagery surreal. The reader is transported to the quiet creek in which much of the story is set and can experience the magic of the place. This is a tale of people broken by grief who find healing in time, tide, and friendship.

The protagonist is eighty-nine year old Marvellous Ways who lives alone in a gypsy caravan on the shores of a remote tidal inlet in Cornwall. She has lived there for much of her life. Although age is affecting her body and her memory she feels that she has one more thing to do before her life ends, she just isn’t sure what it might be.

Francis Drake is a young soldier, scarred by the Second World War. He returns to England to fulfil a promise he made to a dying man. Before setting out on this quest he visits London and the scenes of his childhood. Here he encounters a love he had thought lost, then loses her again in circumstances that stretch him beyond what he can bear.

Marvellous finds Drake and nurses him back to health. In the process they share their stories and we learn of lives lived, loves lost and the damage inflicted by loneliness. There is happiness and regret, success and stoicism, grief and acceptance.

I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of Marvellous. We get to know her as an eccentric old lady but she has lived a long life and is more than the worn body the world now sees. She is both ordinary and extraordinary as so many people are. Strangers mock her dress and habits; Drake looked further and saw the love she had always longed to share.

The denouement mixed sadness with hope, the endings and beginnings that make up a life. This is a beautiful, satisfying read with plenty to ponder after the last page is turned.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.