The warmth that suffuses Sarah Winman’s new novel is pervasive. Though little more than 200 pages in length, Tin Man is plentiful in love, beauty and acts of human kindness.
Ellis and Michael are preteens when they first meet in working- class Oxford, England. An immediate camaraderie develops as the two boys learn to swim, bike the city streets and avoid the swinging fists of their gruff, uncommunicative fathers. Both boys are close to Ellis’ mother, Dora, a woman who makes sure there is always room for art in the family home. But after Dora’s death, Ellis’ father gives the boy no choice but to put his artistic skills to work as a tin man at the local car plant, removing dents and dings so dexterously that customers cannot feel where the damage was.
From the start, the friendship between Ellis and Michael borders on intimacy, and on a 10-day trip to the south of France, they begin a love affair that ends as quickly as it flares up. Not long after, Ellis meets and marries Annie. The three are inseparable until Michael moves to London, eventually cutting off communication with the couple and disappearing into the city.
This gentle novel is told in two parts. In the first, Ellis, now a middle-aged widower, lives a straitened life, still working at the car plant but dreaming of roads untaken. Recovering from a cycling accident gives him the opportunity to recall his special relationships with Annie and Michael and how they helped define him. The second half is drawn from Michael’s diaries, detailing his life in London as a gay man, his struggles after he is diagnosed with AIDS and his decision to return to Oxford.
Although sometimes lacking in characterization (Annie, in particular, is not fleshed out enough), Winman’s compassionate look at the fluidity of sexual identity, youthful passion and middle-aged regret is rich in emotion and proves that great things do come in small packages.