Still Life by Sarah Winman and A Room with a View by E M Forster

This week we have a review of two books that can transport you from the comfort of your own home to Tuscany and the city of Florence – and how lovely to have two books that are set in that beautiful city at different times in its history. Most of us may already know A Room with a View and the work of E M Forster but this is a book that is definitely worth reading again. Sarah Winman is a British actress and author – you may know her debut book When God was a Rabbit, which won several awards when it was first published.

Life is here in full abundance in this novel by Sarah Winman, which explores the choices of Evelyn Skinner, an art historian salvaging paintings in Italy during WW2, who chances to meet a young British soldier, Ulysses Temper. Forty years her junior, Ulysses remains mesmerised by this funny, wise, unconventional gay woman, and the reader waits for them to meet again after a 20-year separation, especially once Ulysses settles in Italy. Winman introduces a dozen colourful and unforgettable characters around her central players, from Evelyn’s female lovers to Ulysses’ close friends, his wife’s feisty daughter, Alys, and an eloquent parrot, Claude. What I loved about the book were the visual pictures it evoked of Italy’s food and wine, sunshine, paintings, music and landscape, happy gatherings and private turmoil.  The inclusion of lots of Italian rooted it firmly in its setting, and I was transported into that glorious ‘foreign holiday’ world. The book has a real feel-good, hopeful quality. At the centre of the novel is Florence, almost a character in her own right, and if you’ve ever visited that wonderful city, or hope to go, you will be there in spirit.

At the centre of A Room with a View is that same city, full of amazing art and architecture. Just as Evelyn’s eyes are opened as a young woman to a new liberated view of life when she encounters the first person with whom she falls in love, so upper middle-class Lucy Honeychurch embraces all that Florence can offer as soon as she throws open the shutters of her room on her first morning. She gains new insights when social barriers are crossed, and her worldly education begins. Forster’s pace is quite different: I much enjoyed re-reading this novel slowly and savouring the subtle nuances between characters as they tentatively relate in the hidebound society of the early 1900s. In Still Life, Evelyn meets the young E M Forster, who manoeuvres life carefully around his autocratic mother. This sensitivity is manifest in his writing. Most of us know A Room with a View as a film but  the book well deserves a re-read. Still Life would I think make a wonderful film, full of colourful episodic energy, strong characterisation and optimism. The novels made for most interesting, paired reading. Viva Firenze!

[We have copies of Still Life, A Room with a View and When God was a Rabbit in the Library.]