Postal Reading group
January 2020
Notes on the book Tin Man by Sarah Winman

With a title redolent of the Yellow Brick Road in the Wizard of Oz, and a burst of colour on the cover to match, Sarah Winman’s third novel has been well received. Tin man tackles themes of friendship and loss, as well as the gay community and the scourge of AIDS.

The storyline is simple, namely that two boys, Ellis and Michael, meet in Oxford, become inseparable, and spend their time cycling the streets, learning to swim in the River Cherwell, and drawing or writing. Eventually they grow up, Ellis marries Annie, and although surprisingly little changes, nevertheless Michael moves away and ultimately contracts AIDS from homosexual relationships. Even for such a short book, this is a simple plot. There is nothing especially remarkable in the story, apart from Ellis and Michael taking a trip to France together which probably would have been genuinely unusual at the time. It even takes some time before we learn that Michael is gay, although I had guessed it long before. Even this doesn’t seem to be the big revelation that you expect, so by the end I was left wondering what the point of the story really was.

I found the style of writing similarly difficult to follow. The book opens with Dora picking out a reproduction of Van Gogh’s famous sunflowers painting as a raffle prize. This might well have been the beginning of the end for her relationship with Leonard, her husband. However, the narrative then switches to Ellis’ point of view. Ellis was Dora and Leonard’s son, but this only becomes apparent some time later. To begin with I experienced difficulty knowing who the characters were, and how they were related. This is not helped by the continuous shift between past and present, rendering any indications of time (such as the unusually cold winter suggesting 1962/63) almost meaningless. Additionally, Ellis’ sections are narrated by a third party (possibly Michael given that he was the writer), and the dialogue is completely devoid of quotation marks.

Of course, even those who particularly enjoyed this book will acknowledge that the plot is extremely simple, or that the writing drifts between past and present. Instead, what others seem to enjoy about the book is the two central characters, and their sensitivity and humanity. Perhaps, therefore, this is why I struggled with the book where most readers have been so enthusiastic. I don’t even disagree with this analysis of the characters, I simply wasn’t interested by them. Yes, they are perfectly decent human beings, but by itself this is not sufficient to hold a reader’s interest. Even the great revelation that Michael was homosexual failed to capture my interest. At a personal level, I believe that Alan Hollinghurst does a better job of writing about the gay community, and having recently read the Sparsholt affair, I wouldn’t rave about that either.

Throughout the book, a lot of significance seems to be invested in Van Gogh’s painting. It clearly captivates Dora so much that it was worth a rare act of defiance, although if the alternative was a bottle of whisky I can only agree with Dora. It reappears later in the book when having been relegated to the loft, it was rescued by Ellis. Similarly, it seems to be one of the motivations behind Ellis and Michael’s trip to France, where they are captivated by the quality of light in the Mediterranean, much as Van Gogh was supposed to have been. Personally, I find this interesting, given that, in my limited experience, the strong sun tends to leave colours looking bleached, while it is perhaps odd that sunflowers in a vase should represent freedom and possibility for Dora.

Finally, the title of this book will, perhaps, encourage readers to think of the Wizard of Oz, where the tin man sets out to find the wizard, hoping to gain a heart. An interview with the author at the back of the book suggests rather that the characters have too much heart. Despite not really being able to engage with either of them, I wouldn’t disagree with this. As the same interview suggests, the author saw this as a kind of journey towards “self-realisation”, and the light; Van Gogh and the painting again! My other idea about the origin of the title was perhaps an allusion to Ellis’ work in the car plant, removing dents from panels, although this is perhaps unlikely given their desire to get away from the industrial landscape.

In summary, despite the rave reviews this book has received, I found it difficult to read, and the characters difficult to engage with. The author has created two convincing characters, and the book is centred entirely on them (and a painting, of course!) In a sense, the author has done this well, while also writing about the gay community and the devastation caused by AIDS. The problem is that if you aren’t interested in the characters then your experience of the book will be more negative. As such my comments reflect a personal response which, I accept, will put me in the minority.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler