Published On: Fri, Aug 4th, 2017

Tin Man review: A short but emotionally charged novel


Tin Man by Sarah Winman Tinder Press, £12.99 

The novel opens with a young pregnant woman, Dora Judd, winning a copy of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in a raffle in 1950. She chooses the painting because to her it offers “Freedom. Possibility. Beauty”.

Her philandering husband wants her to pick the bottle of whisky and her gesture is an act of defiance, humiliating him in front of his friends. This is the prologue to a novel then divided into three parts, two seen through the eyes of Dora’s son Ellis and one through those of Ellis’s childhood friend Michael. 

Almost every contemporary novel seems to switch back and forth in time rather than following a linear narrative and Tin Man is no exception. The structure works well here, however, painting a layered portrait of love and loss, of friendship and misunderstanding.

Len Judd works at the Cowley car plant in Oxford and expects his son Ellis to follow him there to “a job for life”. 

Dora wants a different future for Ellis and encourages his interest in art. She also encourages his friendship with Michael, the grandson of the local greengrocer, a quicksilver, imaginative boy who is the same age as Ellis. But Dora’s death from cancer leaves Ellis no protection from his father and he is forced to leave school at 16 and start work at the car plant. 

His mother’s painting is also taken down. We meet Ellis first when he is 46, still working at the car plant and mourning the death of his wife Annie in a car crash five years earlier. Numb with grief he chooses to work night shifts which seal him off from normal human contact. 

But when he is knocked over and his wrist is broken in a bike accident on Cowley Road, Ellis finds time and space to think again about Annie and Michael and about the trio’s intense friendship which helped him to make sense of his world. 

He reaches a better understanding of his parents’ marriage and finds sympathy for his father’s cheerful and kindly mistress whom he rejected at his mother’s funeral. He also wants to find out more about the mysterious disappearance and return of Michael, the third partner on whom he and Annie relied. Set against the car plant in Oxford is the warmth of the south of France which has resonance for both Michael and Ellis. 

It connects them with their own feelings, the nature of their relationship and with Dora’s painting which represented the possibility of beauty to two young boys. Winman conjures up a sense of the heat, scents and vegetation of Provence in this short but emotionally charged novel. 


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