That may sound suspiciously sentimental, but the joys of “Still Life” are cured in a furnace of tragedy. The action begins in Italy during World War II. As bombs fall around them, a young British soldier named Ulysses runs across Miss Evelyn Skinner, a 64-year-old art historian. She’s been commissioned to help identify masterpieces hidden in the Tuscan hills to protect them from theft and destruction. When Ulysses questions the relevance of her work amid the human carnage of war, she’s ready: “Beautiful art opens our eyes to the beauty of the world, Ulysses. It repositions our sight and judgment. Captures forever that which is fleeting,” Evelyn says. “Art versus humanity is not the question, Ulysses. One doesn’t exist without the other.”
Ulysses, an unusually thoughtful and compassionate man, will never forget that lesson, but he has no reason to think he’ll ever see Evelyn again. The war, after all, is a great scrambler of human beings, a calamity as adept at forging relationships as breaking them apart. Indeed, the rest of “Still Life” — some 400 pages spread over several decades — takes place in the shadow of that common trauma of missing someone.
From the battlefields of Europe, Ulysses returns to London’s East End, particularly to a shabby Georgian tavern called the Stoat and Parot, home to a preternaturally clever bird. “Ulysses pushed open the door,” Winman writes, “and the fire to his right gave off a ripe old smell, all sour and smarting bodies. The old ones were huddled around the hearth exactly as he’d left them: same faces less teeth.” These are the weathered characters of Ulysses’ adolescence, a network of bartenders, gamblers and drinkers who care for each other like the world depends on it — because it does. They may know nothing about the “beautiful art” of Florence, but they’re all master sculptors of what Winman calls “the haunting aspect of devotion.”
Chief among these eccentrics is Col, who owns the Stoat and Parot. Disappointed in love — like everybody else here — Col buries his grief beneath a shell of grumpy sarcasm. “He knew something had gone wrong,” Winman writes, “but for the life of him he didn’t know how to put it right.” The usual target of Col’s insults is his best friend, Old Cressy, who “could fix anything, find anything, and was everyone’s go-to man in need.”
Winman has perfected a style as comfortable and agile as the greetings and anecdotes these old friends have traded for years. She moves among them, licking up phrases and glances, catching the sharp savor of this smoky place so well you’ll taste it on your lips.
The person most responsible for drawing Ulysses back home is Peg, a singer at the Stoat and Parot, who also happens to be his wife. They married right before he left for war — purely a financial arrangement, they claim — but everybody else can see what’s going on. “He couldn’t take his eyes off her,” Winman writes. “He never would.” They have the kind of elastic fidelity to each other that somehow can’t be completely broken or fully embraced.
As soon as Ulysses returns home, “they got divorced,” Winman writes, “and got more friendly.” That’s a typical Winman maneuver, sly and heartbreaking. Ulysses is even happy to play stepdad to Peg’s child, the product of an affair with an American soldier who vanished and left Peg pining.
It’s no coincidence that Ulysses earns a living making globes — delicate, hand-painted models of a planet recently blown apart and reassembled by war. That’s essentially what he and his friends are doing, too: remaking the world as best they can with the bits of paint and paste they can scrap together. The old borders that once outlined what a family is have been burned away; the standard of respectability has been knocked off its axis.
When Ulysses inherits a large house in Italy, his little community in London could have fallen apart, but instead, it moves with him to Florence. Here, he and the old gang have a chance to design an idyllic life entirely devoted to beauty, leisure and hospitality. Seeing them again is “like an infusion of blood straight to the heart,” Winman writes. “All that love.”
Under the spell of Winman’s narration, this seems entirely possible — and endlessly charming. “Still Life,” like real life, sometimes appears to have no forward momentum except the gentle repetition of daily routines and the passage of time. But the novel never feels anything less than captivating because Winman creates such a flawless illusion of spontaneity, an atmosphere capable of sustaining these characters’ macabre wit, comedy of manners and poignant longing.
Looking at his assembled friends one night, Ulysses thinks, “You’d want to be with them. . . . You’d want to be part of them.”
Read “Still Life,” and you can be.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Sarah Winman
G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 452 pp. $27