Published by Tinder Press, June 2017 | Fiction
There are tendrils of hope and redemption in Tin Man, the third novel by British author and actress Sarah Winman.
But there’s no escaping the loss and loneliness, prejudice and abandonment that permeates the pages of this love story.
The first half of the novel is told from the perspective of Ellis. It’s the mid-1990s, he’s middle-aged and works nights in the paint shop of a car plant in the UK’s industrial area of Oxford.
And he’s drowning in grief.
His wife, Annie, had been killed in a car accident five years earlier.
Without her in their home, the emptiness would often leave him ”gasping for breath”, while her invisible presence “was there… a peripheral shadow moving across a doorway, or in the reflection of a window, and he had to stop looking for her.”
As Ellis’ memories tumble out, skipping back and forth from boyhood to more recent years, a picture emerges of the events and people that shaped him. Besides his stoic, artistic, kind-hearted mother and hardened, intolerant, unfaithful father, it also emerges that Ellis’ first love was not Annie, but his childhood friend Michael.
When Michael, essentially orphaned, had moved nearby some thirty years before, the two boys bonded fast and tight. Their friendship became intimate, blossoming naturally albeit secretly, out of sight of the hardened, uncompromising times.
Yet, as we skip forward to when Ellis meets Annie, all three characters form a seemingly unshakable bond. Annie’s friendship with Michael – along with their shared sense of fun and daftness – is as connected and innate as her friendship with her husband-to-be Ellis. And so is Ellis’ friendship with Michael.
So, two big questions loom, propelling the reader on – how did the dynamic between Ellis and Michael change so dramatically? And why is Ellis left mourning the death of Annie alone?
The second half of the novel, which switches to Michael’s perspective, begins to shed some light – for both the reader and Ellis.
In sharing his recollections, Michael doesn’t just fill the gaps in their love story over the previous two decades.
Through his narrative, author Sarah Winman provides a nuanced and compassionate insight into the 1980s HIV/AIDS epidemic in London which had become front and centre of his life – its all-encompassing fear, bigotry, divisive politics and tragedy, mingled with pockets of kindness and care.
Bringing these two narratives together, Tin Man is ultimately a story about the complicated nature of love, traversing the pitfalls of regret, untapped potential, what might have been.
But it also taps into the power of small kindnesses and the tranformative influence of art – a theme that pervades this narrative, and also winds its way into her more recent 2021 novel, Still Life.
In Tin Man, Winman has chosen Vincent van Gogh’s famous work “Sunflowers” as a recurring motif, arcing its way throughout – first during an act of defiance by Ellis’ mother in the opening pages of the novel as she took a risk to gain what the painting represented for her: “Freedom. Possibility. Beauty”; and finally in the closing chapters when it becomes a symbol of light returning to Ellis’ life.
Together with Still Life, and her previous award winning novels, When God Was a Rabbit and A Year of Marvellous Ways, Winman has cemented her place as a writer of great lyricism and tenderness. She has an effortless style, which entices you to savour the details of the ordinary lives she writes about, to feel their grief and, ultimately, their peace.