Tin Man by Sarah Winman is a simple story about two friends.
Ellis and Michael are twelve when they first meet. Their family circumstances, although very different, become a bonding point and their friendship grows over many years. However, from the beginning of the book, we know that there is a gap in Ellis and Michael’s shared history and the reasons for that break are slowly unravelled.
Winman moves the story back and forth over time, revealing the events that shaped the boys’ friendship. There are a number of twists in this relatively short novel and if I listed them, the story could be perceived as overly dramatic. In fact, it is quite the opposite – it is plausible, gently paced and Winman delivers the blows with a velvet hammer (brace yourself, there are bits to make you cry).
And I wonder what the sound of a heart breaking might be. And I think it might be quiet, unperceptively so, and not dramatic at all. Like the sound of an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth.
There’s a carefulness and sensitivity about Tin Man that’s difficult to pinpoint but lovely to read. Winman uses interesting contrasts, for example Michael’s interest in art and poetry, set against the unlikely backdrop of a panel-beating workshop. Likewise, the scenes that include dialogue show enormous restraint and yet get to the guts of what is happening for the characters –
And Billy said what no one else ever said. He said, Terry told me your wife died? And the way he said it was gentle and direct and uninhibited, as if the death of love was normal.
I always enjoy novels where small anecdotes tell a broader story. Winman does this well, and of Michael’s emotionally distant and occasionally physically abusive father, she writes –
He remembered how he watched his father pull his skin this way and that way, drawing his razor across the bristles, the sound of sandpaper in the folds of soap. And sometimes he would whistle a tune of the time, and then tap, tap, tap, the foam fell into the steaming water and small black flecks settled against the white porcelain and remained there, a tidemark, when the basin ran dry. And he remembered thinking that his father could do anything and was afraid of nothing. And those large hands that liked to spar in the boxing ring were also capable of beautiful gestures, like splashing on to his cheeks and neck the sweet musky scent that completed him.
I’ve made this story sound maudlin. It’s not. It’s essentially a story about love, in all the forms it can take and I enjoyed it very much.
There’s something about first love, isn’t there? she said. It’s untouchable to those who played no part in it. But it’s the measure of all that follows, she said.
You were eating a crumpet, and the hallway smelt of crumpets, and you apologised and licked your fingers and I felt shy in my fur hat, so I pulled it off and held up the tree and said, This is yours, I presume, Miss Anne Cleaver? And you said, You presume right. Now take off your boots, and follow me. I kicked them off obediently, and followed and I never looked back.