"Summer's end they were sinewy and brown, and took up a little more space. Summer's end the were inseparable"
In the opening chapter of Sarah Winman's new novel Tin Man we meet Dora who determinedly defies her husband by displaying a print of Van Gogh's Sunflowers, that she won in a raffle, on the kitchen wall. Dora's print is a window to another world, another life beyond the drab 1950s kitchen wall in their house in the shadow of the Cowley motor works on the outskirts of Oxford. Though the story that follows is her son Ellis's, in many ways Tin Man is defined by the hopes and unfulfilled dreams of his mother Dora.
Tin Man is a love story in two parts, each told from the different perspectives of the two main characters Ellis and Michael. Ellis's story tells of lost love and unrealised creative potential whilst Michael's fills in the gaps and explores their relationship over the years in more detail. The stories intertwine and overlap, at times the pair become a trio when Ellis marries his girlfriend Annie but at others they are separated and absent from each other's lives.
The most powerful part of the novel for me concerns the time the pair spend, like Van Gogh himself, in the South of France with the sun on their backs and the sounds of Francois Hardy in their ears. Seeds were planted early in the novel on the banks of the Thames at home in Oxford that come to bloom under the yellow sun of Provence, its a beautifully written sequence. "We'll be OK, I remember thinking. Whatever we are, we'll be OK".
Though the novel is short the narrative arc moves right through to the 1980s with Michael facing the loss of those around him in the height of the AIDS crisis, Winman writes with such empathy that you feel these characters implicitly. The emotional intensity created in such a bite sized novel reminded me of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach. Though sad in parts the story is deeply touching and authentic.
I read this novel in two sittings over the bank holiday weekend.
Tin Man by Sarah Winman published by Tinder Press, 208 pages.
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