Novel Thoughts - Sarah Winman, Still Life (Fourth Estate, 2021)
Updated: May 31
Starting in May 2022, novel thoughts is a blog of my immediate reactions to reading a novel. This is not a critical review or recommendation, but the first thoughts I write down as a working novelist, and after reading a book. It has a focus on technique. I thought students and other writers might enjoy them if I made them public.
A huge book, whose driving ambition and beating heart is hopefulness and a portrait of human kindness. No wonder it has been so popular in 2022. Whether or not it truly consoles is a matter of the reader's perspective. Is true consolation unvarnished understanding, or replacement, forgetting, dreaming?
To provide reassurance and hope, an omniscient narrator is best – one who can talk to us outside of the life of the characters, who can provide footnotes like an historian. Is this the consolation of history – everything understood, and in its place, or just a consoling feeling? To explore a story across decades is to use a narrative perspective capable of minimizing the trauma of the moment – one that takes advantage of the idea that time ‘heals’. This novel’s attitude to time means the aftermath of trauma in individual lives can be circumnavigated. Lovers break up, and the story bounds decades in one sentence to their reunion. A soldier dies in war, but the trauma of grief is left behind to examine the positive impact of his existence upon others. Still Life is not foolish enough to avoid the facts of traumatic events: people die suddenly and without reason, the great flood of 1966 destroys Florence, lover’s hurt each other and yearn…but the narrative always gravitates to acts of resilience, kindness and hope. How much this focus is appreciated, is a matter of where in their own life the reader encounters the novel. It certainly answers the cry that we’ve all had enough of trauma. As a complete work of art, and perhaps because the novel is a long one encompassing decades, the hope and kindness of its characters can sometimes feel relentless. We feel we’ve eaten too many of the sweet, Italian doughnuts that become a symbol of life’s pleasure in the narrative. For godsake, people, stop being so kind and generous to each other! It is, of course, the author in a novel, not time, who provides the healing hand, and the balm is technique. Winman’s prose is breathless – in the sense that she leaps with enormous energy across years and lives, often employing the excited, shorn sentences of a screenwriter making a pitch: ‘dawn over the Arno, swifts breaking the sky.’ Winman has mastered this rhythm beautifully, and her eye for detail is so fine the effect doesn’t quite pall, as it might in the hands of less accomplished writers. When she slows down time and enters a scene, she has the skill to employ all the senses, make the melodrama turn toward reality, and pursue all the surprising, complex and human emotions we want a great author to perceive. Without the keenness of the author’s psychological insight, and the wit of her expression, its subject might fall into the traps of genre romance – providing escapism, and not consolation. Also important to technique, Winman’s abandonment of speech marks. When dramatic events across years and decades are conflated and pushed together, story becomes heightened. Her characters do sometimes act as if they are the exaggerated subjects of a family story told so often memory permits dramatic license. Winman’s convincing and persuasive historicism, her diligent attention to the detail of art history and Florence, mitigates the numinous mysticism - talking trees and parrots with a human intelligence - that is a part of this melodrama. Speech marks – which pin the words onto the page like dead butterflies and make the novel’s false claim for reality, conflict with the raison d’etre of Winman’s narrator – a voice energetically, forcefully, shaping life into a personal vision that is something more than our daily experience of it; a vision so enthusiastic it cannot help but announce itself explicitly in the final pages. At which point, I might almost agree.