Review published on October 5, 2017.
The eloquence of Sarah Winman’s writing shines throughout this beautifully written, heart-wrenching short novel. It is about desire, love, loss, friendship and loneliness and, above all, it is about the healing power of beauty. Ellis, the first narrator of this haunting story, is a 46 year old widower whose loneliness causes him to reflect on his life, his relationships and the paths not taken. As a boy he had always wanted to be an artist, partly inspired by a painting of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers that his mother had won in a raffle – a choice which disgusted her husband because he had willed her to choose the bottle of whisky. She supported Ellis in his artistic dreams but, following her death when he was a teenager, his father made him leave school and go to work in the paint shop of an Oxford car-plant. There he learnt to smooth out dents in bodywork so that any imperfections could no longer be felt – an outlet of sorts for his need to do something well, but offering no satisfaction for his true creativity. His reflections on his life cause him to recall intense and vivid memories of the past, of his childhood friendship with his best friend Michael and of their passionate teenage romance when on holiday in Arles. However, on returning home from France, Ellis buried these feelings for his friend and, when he met Annie, his future wife, the three became close friends, until this friendship was abruptly severed when Michael disappeared from their lives, to go and live in London. The second half of the novel then switches to Michael’s recollections on the experiences he shared with Ellis and Annie, but also all that had happened in his life during the period he remained out of contact with them.
Set at a time of considerable prejudice towards homosexuality, and at the height of the 1980s Aids crisis, this poignant story explores reflections on lives which could have been differently lived. Its exploration of how society so often forces boys to relinquish an overt appreciation of beauty in order to become men, thus suffocating an essential part of themselves, felt at times almost too painful to contemplate.
With the huge empathy for people’s emotional pain, their hopes and their disappointments, which Sarah Winman so sensitively demonstrated in her first two novels, she explores so many different aspects of grief and loss, friendship and hope in this hauntingly beautiful story. At no time did I ever feel that there was a wasted, or superfluous word as she brought the past and the present together in such an evocative way, making each of her characters’ emotional struggles so immediately recognisable. She captured an authentic sense of time and place and, with her descriptions of Arles, conjured up visions of a landscape suffused with light and beauty.
It isn’t often that I would be inclined to describe writing as exquisite but in Tin Man that is exactly how it felt to me. Although I really enjoyed her earlier novels, I think this is her best and I know that her wonderful characters will remain vivid in my memory for a long time because she managed to bring each one so powerfully alive. I feel that my words cannot match her eloquence or do full justice to this remarkable book, so all I can hope is that they will encourage you to get a copy and discover its thought-provoking, heart-breaking beauty for yourself.
Linda Hepworth 5/5
Tin Man by Sarah Winman
Tinder Press 9780755390953 hbk Jul 2017
Our Intrepid Reporter: Gwenda Major Attends An Evening With Ann Cleeves