Sarah Winman’s Tin Man is another novel I bought because of some rave reviews. Luckily, this time, I enjoyed the book a lot. It’s actually surprising because Sarah Winman does something I normally don’t like. She switches narrators in the middle of the novel, using a narrative device that can easily sink a novel – the use of a diary. In this case, the switch added poignancy and turned a very good novel into an excellent, heartbreaking book.
Before I start with a brief summary, let me emphasize what a great cover this book has. Until you read it, it’s just a pop of yellow color with a man riding a bicycle on it, but once you’ve read the book, you know that the yellow cover alludes to one of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings – The Sunflowers.
Van Gogh’s Sunflowers
The painting stands for beauty and the belief, as one of the characters’ mother says, that boys and men are capable of beautiful things.
As a matter of fact, the book starts with the painting or rather how Ellis’ mother won a copy of it in a raffle and put it on a wall, in an act of defiance. Her brutish husband would have preferred her to take a bottle of whisky. The year is 1950 and it’s Ellis’ birth year.
The book then moves to 1996. We are in Elli’s house. There’s a photograph of three people on a bookshelf. A photograph Ellis rarely looks at because two of the three people in it are gone. One, his wife, is dead. What happened to the other one, his best friend Michael ,will be revealed over the course of the novel.
Annie, Ellis’ wife, has been dead for five years, but the grief is still raw. It’s one of the reasons why Ellis works at night. In a factory. Factory work wasn’t exactly his calling. He wanted to become a painter but after his mother’s early death, his dad didn’t allow it.
Ellis’ whole life is slowly revealed. At its heart is his friendship with Michael, a lonely orphan, who lives nearby and visits often. The two boys are very close. Also physically close and for the longest time, one of them, Michael, thinks they will be lovers. They will, in fact, but it’s a furtive thing. Ellis doesn’t really seem to be gay. And once Annie comes along, there’s no doubt, this is the love of his life. At least romantically speaking, because in terms of emotional love, there’s not much of a difference. He loves Michael just as much as Annie.The truly magical thing, though, is that Michael and Annie become best friends as well.
Of course the reader wonders where Michael is. Why is Ellis’ best friend not with him and helps him to get over his grief?
Ellis has an accident and is on sick leave for a long time. Having so much time for himself, has a huge impact. He revisits his life, his aspirations, his dreams. And then he finds Michael’s diary and we finally learn what happened. How they lost contact and why they are apart.
The first part, Ellis’ part, is sad, but the second, Michael’s, is heartbreaking. The relationship seen through his eyes, gets another meaning and the book explores another form or grief—heartbreak.
Here’s what Michael says
I rest till I’m calm and my breathing has settled. I lift myself out and sit by the edge of the pool with a towel around my shoulders. And I wonder what the sound of a heart breaking might be. And I think it might be quiet, unperceptively so, and not dramatic at all. Like the sound of an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth.
Both men travel to the South of France, following Van Gogh’s itinerary but also, in Ellis’ case, exploring where Michael spent some time.
These parts are beautiful and capture the landscape, its colors and scents so well
It’s a rare overcast day and I walk over to Mausole, to the St. Paul asylum where Van Gogh spent a year before he died. The air along this stretch of road is filled with the scent of honeysuckle that has crept over a neighbouring wall. I think it’s honeysuckle. It’s sweet and fragrant, but I’m not good with plants – that was Annie’s thing. I veer off through olive groves where the sun has yet to take the colour of the wildflowers. In two weeks, though, the grass will be scorched and lifeless.
Since this novel is mainly set in the 90s of the last century and does explore what it was like to be gay back then, it touches on so many really sad topics like HIV, the way homosexuals were perceived by society, how many never came out, how they had to hide. Things have gotten so much better by now, that we almost tend to forget that not too long ago, they were very different. In the early 90s HIV was still synonymous with Aids. Once you were infected there wasn’t a huge chance you wouldn’t get seriously ill sooner or later and then, because there was no cure, die. There are passages, in which Michael visits men in an Aids ward. They are harrowing.
Tragic books, especially when they describe raw emotions can turn mushy or tacky. This one never crosses these lines. It’s moving and deeply touching without being sentimental. It’s an emotional ride that explores themes like grief and loss, loneliness and unrequited love, finding one’s path, following one’s calling and, most of all, fining beauty where there seems to be only ugliness. A truly beautiful book.