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There is a passage right in the middle of this novel about art, life, love and a thousand other things, that distils its essence.
In the passage, art historian Evelyn Skinner writes about still life paintings.
“The world of the domestic kitchen is a female world… Men may enter... but do not work there and yet work is all that women do there. It is a world of reliability… fixed and unremarkable. Yet within these [still life painting] forms something powerful is retained: Continuity. Memory. Family.”
Those three words form the bedrock for this exquisite book.
In war-torn Italy in 1944, Evelyn Skinner, an English art historian in her sixties, meets Ulysses Temper, a young Allied soldier from London, and they accidentally discover a repository of hidden artworks.
The experience is to weld them together for life, though they don’t yet know this.
Each survives the war and returns to England, Evelyn to her teaching post, Ulysses to his two old friends, Col and Cressie, who run a pub in London’s East End, and to his wife Peg.
Peg has not been faithful and has had a child from her affair. Ulysses should be embittered, but love and bitterness cannot coexist in the same soul.
Flighty Peg leaves her baby daughter and seeks her fortune elsewhere, leaving the baby in Uly’s care. Meanwhile, an old Italian recluse whose life Uly saved during the war, bequeaths his substantial property in Florence to him.
Uly, Cress, Claude the Parrot and The Kid leave London for Florence, converting this large house into a pensione. And life is sweet. Their old community in London is missed, but Florence and its people more than compensate.
It is art that fires the imagination of almost every character in this novel and Winman writes about it with an assured pen, never swamping the reader in unnecessary technicalities – although she may very well send them off to Google Images to feast their eyes on whatever work is currently on the page.
In 1966 the Arno river bursts its banks and the entire city of Florence is left under water. Over one hundred people die in the floods and thousands of artworks across the galleries, libraries and churches of Florence are left covered in mud, sediment and worse.
Artists from everywhere flock to Florence to assist, in whatever way they can, on an extensive artworks restoration project. These people will become known in the art history books as The Mud Angels.
Evelyn, now in her eighties but sprightly as a pup, is one of those angels, rushing to Florence to do what she can.
She is to meet Ulysses again, for the first time since their encounter during the war. The rest is history – and the rest is also potentially a spoiler.
There are not enough superlatives to contain the magnitude and beauty of this novel. It explores the very foundations of the meaning of family; is it really a collective gene pool or does the heart of family mean something else entirely?
Besides being a story of ordinary lives surrounded by extraordinary art, it manages to be a short, extremely entertaining encyclopaedia of Italian, and in particular Florentine, art history.
It’s a fictional biography of not two lives, but of several, and a chronicle of the intertwining of those lives. It’s a celebration of beauty, a story of what Evelyn describes as ‘Continuity. Memory. Family.’
It is, above all, a testament to love.