Book review: Tin Man by Sarah Winman

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

 

There is an exquisite beauty and loveliness to the writing of Sarah Winman.

With every artfully-chosen word – artful in the sense that it is rich and poetic, not artificial or posed – and perfectly-expressed idea you are subsumed into stories that are suffused with humanity, joy, sadness, regret and hope, everything that life serves you up examined in ways both wondrous and cutting to the marrow.

The fact that her writing is this beautiful might lead you to think that it is fey and insubstantial, all glowing ideas and burnished syllables, no real core of truth or understanding.

But you would be wrong; in anything, writing this lovely, this gorgeous, allows for the expression of all kinds of ideas, thoughts and observations that might confront so boldly the reader might switch before their full import has sunk in.

Instead, awash in language that soothes and caresses, you allow the horrible truthfulness and rawness of life to really hit you, to settle and fill you in a way you likely wouldn’t know with a less-talented, clumsy writer.

In her latest book, Tin Man, which follows the almost inexpressibly wonderful, achingly-insightful A Year of Marvellous Ways, her command of the English language is writ large in full glorious show but as before it’s not simply to be some literary show pony, because you suspect Winman would never be satisfied with so ephemeral and shallow a purpose, but to lay life’s ability to both wound and heal us out on the table for all to see.

“And Michael reached for Dora’s hand and they laughed and Ellis remembered how grateful he was that Michael’s care was instinctive and natural because he could never be that way with her. He was constantly on the lookout for the last goodbye.” (P. 47)

As with all her books, Tin Man doesn’t show all its narrative cards at once.

Little by little, in oblique and straight-ahead, full-on scenes, we come to know Ellis, a man who has worked in a local car detailing factory, almost magically removing dents from injured automobiles, since his youth, despite the fact that he is actually an enormously talented artist.

But under pressure from his emotionally-removed father in the wake of a tragic incident, he takes on this “job for life”, robotically turning up and working well, body present but soul and proclivities a million miles away.

It is clear that Ellis os mired in grief but exactly why isn’t immediately obvious not what is revealed as it’s vast extent, layered on top of a childhood that held both resignation and rampant, joyous possibility.

Ellis’s life, it emerges, is one cut off, stymied, a progression of promising events and moments that never coalesced into the rich vision of life he, and some key figures in his life clung to, a muted abrogation of his mother’s firm belief, in the face of then-prevailing truth, that “men and boys are capable of beautiful things.”

 

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

 

As Ellis moves through his now-fossilised life, a man known as removed and sad at work except to apprentice and coworker Billy, a much-younger man with whom he shares more than he knows.

An accident one night as he’s riding on his beloved bike sets in chain a seismic shift in both the look and feel of Ellis’s life which comes alive in ways big and small, in ways that both make sense and surprise a man who long ago left behind the one great defining friendship of his life.

His bond with Michael, who is given as much to tell his story as Ellis is, beautifully splitting Tin Man into two complementary, like-minded halves that makes a pleasing if poignant whole, is the central plank of the narrative, a connective tissue that explains so much of what Ellis is, and alas, isn’t.

As you get to know Ellis, Michael, Michael’s gran Mabel, Ellis’s mother Dora and his father Len or wife Annie (she becomes incredibly close to Michael too) and an engaging satellite of supporting characters, all of whom come vividly alive under Winman’s talented hand, you come to appreciate once again, in case you have forgotten now delightfully and horribly complicated life can be.

It is tempting for many people, particularly those of a particular religious or political persuasion to see life in purely black-and-white, easily-sketched and understood tones, but throughout Tin Man‘s all too short but spot-on perfect length, you understand all over again that neither people nor places or events are ever as straightforward as the purists would like to believe.

“Without Michael’s energy and view of the world they became the settled married couple both had feared becoming. They made little demand of one another and conversation gave way to silence, albeit comfortable and familiar. Ellis withdrew, he knew he did. His hurt turned to anger, there when he woke up and before he slept. Life was not as fun without Michael. Life was not as colourful with him. Life was not life without him. If only Ellis could have told him that then maybe he would have returned.” (P. 65)

Whether it’s lazy days by the river, of which Ellis and Michael who grow closer than most teenage boys, enjoy many, or the afterwash of death and loss, or simply a quiet dinner with close friends that comes to be more Last Supper than grand lasting reunion, Tin Man is full to bursting with the real, substantial, achingly true good and bad parts of this messy business of living.

Every single moment of it, including it’s deeply-moving yet quietly-expressed, and the more powerful for it, ending, resonates with so much insightfulness and realness, giving even more accessibility and truth than it already possesses by Winman’s luxuriously poetic but never less than honest prose.

That is the true delight of her books I think.

She is one of the few writers I’ve encountered who can marry sublimely transportive, utterly lovely prose up with a warts-and-all account of life and have the two merge to create a wholly evocative and impacting whole.

In that regard she mirrors many Scandinavian songwriters and singers who brings together the light of their upbeat, bouncy music with lyrics that cut to the quick, delivering truth and honesty in a package that belies its wrenching, touching contents.

The thing is for all her realness, and there is a great deal on offer, Tin Man bubbles and percolates with hope, with possibility, with an affirmation, rousingly-delivered in the most whispered of ways, that life may be difficult, it may cause you great sadness and pain but that wrapped around that, in the present and in memories, is the sense that life offers up more than it takes away if only you can, like Ellis, remain awake and aware enough to see it.

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