Sarah Winman’s novel Tin Man is the story of Ellis, a quiet middle-aged man who has spent his adult life working nights in the paint shop at the local car plant in Oxford, England. “He was forty-five years old, and every night he wondered where the years had gone.”
Every day is much like the day before for Ellis, but his life wasn’t always so predictable. First there was Michael. Then there was Annie.
In the front bedroom, propped up among the books, is a color photograph of three people, a woman and two men. They are tightly framed, their arms around one another, and the world beyond is out of focus, and the world on either side is excluded. They look happy, they really do. Not just because they are smiling but because there is something in their eyes, an ease, a joy, something they share.
The “something they share” is the subject of Tin Man, a story that unravels like a beautiful dream. The ribbon that runs through Ellis’s story is a painting of Van Gogh’s sunflowers. Ellis’s mother, Dora, won a reproduction of the painting in a raffle and, to her, it represented “Freedom. Possibility. Beauty.”
When, as an adolescent, Michael meets Dora, they share an appreciation for the painting and what it represents. She tells Michael and Ellis, “Men and boys should be capable of beautiful things.”
Ellis’s relationship with Michael shape-shifts, and when they are nineteen they travel to Van Gogh’s France and consummate their relationship. A choice they make there altars the course of their lives, and a few years later Ellis meets Annie and marries her. Ellis’s marriage is another decision that changes the trajectory of their lives. Winman’s book is really about those choices, big and small, which can have an impact on our lives.
Tin Man is also a book about the kindness of strangers, and of how sometimes a moment of grace can allow the light to get into the darkest corners of our lives. A shared meal. A bed to sleep in. The opportunity to tell our story. Forgiveness when you need it most.
This is a beautifully written book. There are no villains here, only human beings hopeful to live worthy lives. I think the novel suggests that what’s worthy are the quiet moments, the moments of homecoming.