September 2022 Open Book Group – Still Life by Sarah Winman

Welcome to Jacqui and Robyn. Thank you to Jan for moderating Still Life by Sarah Winman.

 Still Life is a sweeping saga covering four decades from the 1940s to the 1970s. We first meet the main protagonist, Ulysses Temper as a young soldier in Italy in 1944. Here he and his commander Captain Darnley cross paths with Evelyn Skinner a 64-year-old art historian. She has come to rescue priceless paintings from the wreckage. She relives memories of staying in a pensione in Florence as a young woman. There she met E.M Foster and had her heart stolen by an Italian maid. She entrances Ulysses with talk of renaissance art and the beauty of Florence.

On leaving the army, he returns to his job in the Stout and Parrot pub in the East End of London. He does not settle. A surprise inheritance enables him and his makeshift family, namely his ex-wife Peg’s young daughter from a wartime tryst with an American GI, Alys, his friend Cress, and a talking parrot Claude, to move to Florence. They set up a Pensione and are soon thriving supported by the generosity of their Italian neighbours. There is no plot per se rather we follow their lives and those of numerous connected characters as they live, love, and grow.

The turning point of the book is the 1966 flood of the Arno. It destroyed thousands of books and artworks. Volunteers, mainly foreign students, came to Florence to try to help the rescue effort. They were known as the Mud Angels.

When setting out to write Still Life Winman noted in an interview with the ABC that she was thinking about Brexit and how it’s illuminated what she calls “a disdain for otherness”. Instead of writing about her despair at the anti-European movement, Winman wanted to give people a moment to pause, a moment of joyful solidarity, a breath of entertainment… I want people to still believe in the goodness of others and the freedom that is out there by crossing the channel”.

It was another OBG full house with 18 members gathering to discuss Still Life. Many confessed to ambivalence after completing the first chapter, but perseverance found us well-rewarded. Winman achieved her aim of writing a joyful book. One member described the read as being enveloped in a warm blanket. Another amusingly referenced Call the Midwife with its shiny happy portrayal of life in the East End of London. We noted that a fleeting mention of the Kray twins and the domestic violence suffered by Peg from her second husband Ted did add needed shade to the sunshine

Her descriptions of their life in Florence with its food, art and architecture were so evocative we wanted to get on the next plane, if only we could get through departures. Still Life is a feminist novel. We thought the title reflected this. Such an art form is often wrongly considered inferior as it portrays the domestic depicting fruit, bowls, and bottles. Women of the renaissance had no time to, nor were encouraged to paint. Still Life also delves into the history of Florence. We learnt a lot, particularly about the terrible Arno flood which we were ashamed to say many of us had not heard of.

Ulysses was a globe maker. One member thought this may be Winman reinforcing that the world is bigger than your own country. Look outwards rather inwards. Another thought it may be a nod to so many dying crafts. She referenced bookbinding and book restoration. Or could it be, like the Greek god Atlas, a metaphor for the cares (his suppressed bisexuality?) Ulysses was carrying on his shoulders.

We found Winman’s intent on portraying non-traditional families with men, like Ulysses taking on the role of primary carer refreshing.  Her descriptions of varied explicit sexual encounters with a strong emphasis on gays and lesbians living out their lives in an ordinary way were successful too. They were not gratuitous. Winman, herself a lesbian coming out in the 1980s, was able through Evelyn and Alys to show the experience as a natural part of life. We noted Ulysses’ convenience sex with Peg implied his heterosexuality, but we agreed there was fission between him and Darnley. We thought this may have developed further had Darnley not been killed in the line of duty. As sexuality was a major theme in the novel one member expressed her frustration that reputable critics, such as the New York Times, failed to mention it in their review. This made her wonder if any real progress was being made to a liberal, open-minded embrace of the LGBTQIA+ community.

E.M Foster’s Room with a View influenced Still Life. Evelyn describes her meeting with Foster. Cress is engrossed in the novel.  We agreed to put it on our reading list for next year so we can explore this aspect further.

There were flaws. Continuity errors annoyed some. Winman referred to hairspray and tinfoil used in 1940s East End. Neither existed. Sugar solution kept hair in place and old newspapers kept food warm. Every English person, of a certain age, remembers where they were when England won the football World Cup in 1966. For Winman to get her facts wrong here was a travesty for one member. She does not use any inverted commas to indicate speech. This purposeful lack of basic punctuation (B-, see me after class) confused some. Finally, often the dialogue did not ring true, for example, 10-year-old Alys’ mature critique of Fellini’s I Vitelloni. Through no fault of their own, it was hard to imagine that the education Ulysses and Cress received in 1930s East End matched their philosophical arguments. These flaws did impede the reading pleasure for some members. Most made an early decision to go with the flow and ignore them.

The Shakespearean quoting parrot was seen as a bit of fun.

Our hour was up and so too was our escape to Italy in Winman’s Still Life. An escape OBGers highly recommend.



  1. I enjoyed this book. I was unaware of the flood in Florence and it’s devastating impact on the old city.
    Alys ,Ulysses , Cres and Evelyn were all well,portrayed characters. I agree with the comment , “ go with the flow.” We can pick up every tiny flaw, or just sit back and enjoy the story?

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