"Still Life" is shorter than either "The Virgin in the Garden" or "Babel Tower", but feels longer. I don't necessarily intend this as a criticism: this is, however, a darker and more contemplative book than its predecessor.
Byatt's superscription, a passage from Bede, is not only apposite but cuts to the heart of the matter. Imagine, says Bede, that you're dining with friends on a winter's evening (Christmas dinner, maybe?), when a sparrow flies in from the darkness, crosses the room and flies out again into the dark. Such is the life of man.
Where "The Virgin in the Garden" was all overheated summer, there is a wintry chill here: the book opens and closes with preparations for Christmas, but there is little festive cheer. Frederica has now left school and embarked on a colourful undergraduate career at Cambridge. Meanwhile, her sister Stephanie, who is just as bright but lacks Frederica's ferocity, is feeling increasingly trapped by pregnancy and motherhood. There is a new post-feminist edge here: the most memorable passages for me concerned the way Stephanie's horizons, and even her vocabulary, are constricted by her domestic set-up, even with a loving husband and family support. Motherhood is always about loss as well as gain.
The third strand running through the book is the life of Vincent Van Gogh, about whom Frederica's nearly-lover Alexander Wedderburn is writing a play. Van Gogh has become such a cultural icon that this could easily have become a bit maudlin (Dame Antonia leads us in a rousing chorus of "Starry Starry Night"?), but in fact the Van Gogh elements are handled with subtlety and allow Byatt to explore her fascination with visionary experiences and different ways of "seeing".
The unifying theme is one of loss: the book closes with a shockingly random death and its aftermath. Certainly darker than the other Frederica novels; but the characters are as vivid as ever, and linger in the reader's mind long after the book is shut.