Beauty in sadness. I can’t think of a more perfect phrase to sum up this book.
Five succinct pages is all it takes to establish the book’s premise. It’s 1950 and Dora is pregnant with the main character, Ellis. She is stuck in a miserable marriage and rebels against her abusive husband, choosing an amateur sunflower painting over a bottle of whisky when she wins a raffle. The painting becomes an important thread throughout the novel.
Time then jumps to 1996, with Ellis in his mid forties, living a lonely, depressing life. For the past five years he has been consumed by the grief of a tragic event.
It is winter. Bleak and cold, like Ellis’s life. But a bike accident necessitates time away from his factory job, giving him the opportunity to take stock of his life. Spring arrives and the warming sun, mother nature and a break from routine finally start him on the healing process.
Then wham. The book delves into Michael’s life (Ellis’s best friend). We have already got to know Michael through Ellis’s story, which makes the second half of the book even more poignant.
It is 1989, in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. Michael witnesses the devastating effects of the disease, knowing there’s a chance he may have contracted it. It’s what he does with his ensuing time – scanning his body for signs of the disease, while coping with the grief of losing a close friend – that makes this section so heartbreaking. He looks back over his life. At the deaths of Ellis’s mother and Mabel (who were surrogate mothers to him), and at his relationship with Ellis, that was almost so much more than just friendship. Skilful and sympathetic writing lightened the reading of such sorrowful events.
Whilst I was totally enamoured with Sarah Winman’s writing style, the lack of quotation marks and speech tags (he said/she said) detracted a little from my overall reading experience. I’ve not found this a problem with other books, so I can’t explain why the approach bothered me in this instance, other than saying I had to re-read certain paragraphs to get the flow of who said what.
I did like the way Ellis’s story was told in third person, whilst Michael’s was in a first person, ‘journal style’. It made Michael’s account so much more intimate and when the point of view reverted to Ellis’s third person at the end, it was almost a relief to step back from the level of intimacy that Michael’s story demanded.
The ending was as short and perfectly formed as the beginning, with the last few paragraphs told from the point of a view of an outsider. It was the split decision made in the presence of that stranger, changing Ellis’s life forever, that stayed with me.
There is so much sadness in this book you almost drown in it. But it is explored in the most moving, soul-searching way.
Just shy of 200 pages, Tin Man is a quick read, but one that will stay with you.