Tin Man by Sarah Winman published in 2017.
“This is almost a love story.
Ellis and Michael are twelve when they first become friends, and for a long time it is just the two of them, cycling the streets of Oxford, teaching themselves how to swim, discovering poetry, and dodging the fists of overbearing fathers. And then one day this closest of friendships grows into something more. But then we fast forward a decade or so, to find that Ellis is married to Annie, and Michael is nowhere in sight. Which leads to the question, what happened in the years between?”
I thought this book was going to be a quick read, but it pulled me in for longer than I expected.
Tin Man is divided into two parts, first from the point of view of Ellis, a lonely man living in Oxford trying to adjust to being secluded in his life as a mechanic, even though he’d rather be drawing. He’s used to being around his wife Annie and his best friend Michael, the two people he’s been intimately acquainted with for the better part of his life. Yet when they are both taken from his presence, he is left wandering around, aimlessly reminiscing of better times with the two of them, more specifically Michael. The other part of the book focuses on Michael after he leaves Oxford, experiencing similar emotions as Ellis. This novel explores themes of loneliness, sexuality and unconditional love.
On the cover there’s an excerpt from a review by Matt Haig that says this book, “Breaks your heart and warms it all at once,” and he nailed it on the head. Winman tugged on my heartstrings like they were rubber bands, stretching them to their furthest capabilities. Similar to life, there were bright and optimistic moments that were paired with borderline depressing content. The balance of mood was refreshing and created a sparkling narrative, despite the heavy topics of homophobia and the AIDs epidemic. The style of writing is quite cozy. There was a classic storytelling essence that brought me closer to the characters and made me feel like I knew them all personally.
On the topic of the characters, I enjoyed all of them very much. They were all very likeable, such as Ellis’s stepmother, Carol, the figure of his father’s adultery. As a reader, I wanted to hate her since she was placed in the story as the homewrecker, yet her demeanour was so kind and soft that she ended up being one of my favourite characters. Her relationship with Ellis’s father was the definition of opposites attract since she was soft and maternal and he was harsh and hyper-masculine. Both these characters had the potential to be unpleasant, yet Winman presented them with such redeeming qualities that I couldn’t hate them if I tried. Now that I think about it, I wouldn’t necessarily classify the characters as likeable, more so just very realistic, which is very refreshing.
There were some touchy subjects that were covered, such as sexuality and the AIDs epidemic that I mentioned above. Ellis and Michael loved each other very immensely and explored each other’s body in great detail over their several years of friendship. Michael is more certain in his sexuality while Ellis was simply exploring the realms of love. The love they have for each other was beautiful and inspiring, based more on pure adoration and not labels. That’s probably the one aspect I enjoyed most about Tin Man—the lack of societal labels. I don’t think the words “gay” or “bisexual” were mentioned once, and the actual acts were described with an aura of nonchalance; no need to overcomplicate the simplistic feelings that are felt There are several lines that describe it better than I ever could, saying,
“A place where we didn’t discuss who we are or what we were…”
“We love who we love, don’t we?”
Now I’ve gone on and on about everything I liked about this book, it’s time to mention some things that irked me. The biggest complaint I have is the lack of quotation marks. As I said in a past review of mine (The Separation), I do not like the absence of quotation marks at all. It’s a creative decision made by the writer that I’m sure she has her reasons for, but it is definitely not my style. I find it confusing and gratuitous, only overcomplicating what would an easy dialogue exchange between characters. Definitely, an initial turn-off when I first opened the book.
I also found the timeline to be somewhat confusing, since most of the moments in Ellis’s part are memories of the past, and Michael’s part is mainly done in current time. It jumps back and forth from 1996 to 1989 to other unspecified years and I grow more and more perplexed at what’s going on. I often times had to retrace my words to figure out when an event was happening. Near the very end, the timeline began to be more stable and all the loose ends came together, perfectly wrapped up with an exact copy of the paragraph that opened up the book. I’m thankful for this since it somewhat redeemed the majority of the disorganized timeline.
Overall this book impressed and disappointed me in different ways. There were aspects that I loved but also some small details that I didn’t care for at all. The first thing I mentioned was that this wasn’t the fast read that I thought it was going to be, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. It dragged on during Michael’s part (which is especially heartbreaking since I liked his character very much) and I found it difficult to get through. So if you’re looking for an intriguing and intricate (sometimes maybe too intricate) book and you don’t mind the absence of quotation marks, it may be worth your time to look into Tin Man.