Tin Man by Sarah Winman

Reviewed by Rod McLary

I don’t know whether Sarah Winman had the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz in mind when she named her third book.  Tin Man in the film is invited to join Dorothy and her companions on the yellow brick road to the Emerald City.  He desires a heart which he – mistakenly – believes he lacks.  It turns out that he has one all the time.

Tin Man – the novel – is a story about two young men – Ellis and Michael – and one young woman – Annie – set in Oxford England and in the context of the AIDS crisis of the nineties.  The novel is in two parts.  The first is written from Ellis’ perspective and the second from Michael’s.  The second part is the better of the two and perhaps that reflects the relative importance of the two male characters.  As Ellis says ‘life was not as colourful without [Michael]’. [p65]  As if to reinforce this view of Michael, the first part of the novel is written in the third person while the second is in the first person – and in it we clearly hear Michael’s voice.

There is no doubt that the novel Tin Man has heart.  At its centre is the relationship between Ellis and Michael – two young teenagers who are brought together by fractured family relationships.  Ellis’ mother is seriously ill and he cannot live with his father.  Michael’s mother has run away and his father has died.  Ellis’ grandmother Mabel takes in Ellis and offers a home to Michael.  The boys strike a close friendship from the beginning but, on the day of Ellis’ mother’s funeral, Michael kisses Ellis.

In a rather beautiful passage, the author describes the event.

And he knelt down and kissed him.  It was their first kiss.  Something good in a day of bad.

They sat there quietly, not talking about death, or the kiss, or how life was going to change.  They watched the shifting colours of the sun and the deep shadows eavesdropped on their grief, and the vivid descant of birdsong slowly muted to unimaginable silence.  [50]

Their relationship deepens and, many years later, Ellis remembers ‘those moments from youth, when they raced back to an empty room and nervously explored the other’s body in a pact of undefined togetherness’ [63].  The culmination of their relationship is nine days spent together in France and the plans they make to stay there forever.  However, Michael intuitively knows he is not ‘the key to unlock Ellis.  She’d come later’.

After returning home, Ellis meets Annie whom he later marries.  Although Annie has a pivotal role in what follows, her character never seems fully realised.  We learn almost nothing of her – her background, her beliefs or values – it is almost as if she is inserted into the story simply to bring about some of the subsequent events.  While there is perhaps some justification for this literary device, it seems that an opportunity to draw a fuller character is lost.

The absence of a proper sense of Annie is one of two shortcomings of the novel.  The second is its rather disjointed first half.  It is challenging – certainly for this reader – to fully grasp the proper sequence of events in Ellis’ story.  While the gradual release of information can create a sense of dramatic tension, here it is confusing and unclear.  At another point, a young man, Billy, is inserted into the story and while it is clear that Billy is kind and insightful, the purpose of the character and his contribution to the events which unfold is unclear.

Fortunately, the second part of the novel is more enjoyable.  Ellis finds a notebook of Michael’s the first sentence of which reads ‘November 1989.  I don’t know the day, the days have become irrelevant’ and thus begins Michael’s story.

It is through Michael’s story that the novel comes alive.  Michael is caring for a former lover who is dying with AIDS.  In the hospice, he meets another young man whom he helps through an act of kindness.  There are other acts of kindness and generosity to come.  When Michael returns to France alone, a young couple invite him to share their meal; his landlady allows him to stay on beyond the tourist season; his boss continues to give him work when the tourists have all gone.

It is in Michael’s story that the true heart of the novel becomes most apparent.  Tin Man is a gentle story of love, friendship and kindness.  There are some beautifully written passages in the book and the author has a keen ear for verbal images which capture the essence of the moment.  The novel tells a story which stays with the reader for some time after it is read.

Sarah Winman is an actress and has had a number of roles on stage, television and film.  She continues to act and her most recent role was in 2014.  Tin Man is her third novel – her two previous novels When God was a Rabbit and A Year of Marvellous Ways received critical acclaim including, for the former, in 2011 the award New Writer of the Year in the Galaxy National Book Awards.  Tin Man shares some of the themes of that book – familial ties and friendships, and love and life.

Tin Man

[2017]

By Sarah Winman

Tinderpress/Hachette Australia

ISBN 978 0 7553 9096 0

195pp; $29.99

 

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