By Sarah Winman
Reviewed by Graeme Aitken
Gay readers will remember Sarah Winman’s delightful debut novel When God was a Rabbit which featured numerous queer characters, and now in this slim third novel she has once again returned to exploring the lives of gay men. Ellis and Michael meet as twelve-year-olds when Michael comes to live with his grandmother Mabel, following the death of his father. Mabel enlists Ellis (a local boy of a similar age) to join the welcoming party and the two boys quickly become inseparable. Ellis is himself cut adrift following the premature death of his beloved mother and this is compounded when his father takes up with peroxide blonde Carol, whose presence in their lives was apparent to Ellis long before her official introduction due to the reek of her pervasive perfume. Ellis finds refuge with Michael and Mabel as often as possible and the intimacy between the boys comes to a head when on a holiday to France. They become lovers in earnest and reach a critical turning point. But Ellis’ sexuality is not as clear-cut as Michael’s and when he delivers a Christmas tree to Annie, a new bond is formed. Yet rather than viewing her as a rival, Michael accepts her and the trio become inseparable for a time.
The novel is structured in two halves – the first from Ellis’ perspective, the second from Michael’s – and is suffused with memories. In Ellis’ section, he is a middle-aged widower, looking back on his life, haunted by grief and unfathomable losses. Tin Man is studded with numerous deaths – several of them abrupt and unexpected, others cruel and lingering – and Winman tenderly explores the impact they leave in their wake. Sarah Winman has a great gift for creating complex characters with warmth and empathy and making the reader care about them. It is a masterful skill and even secondary characters are fully developed and often surprise our expectations, such as the new wife Carol. This is a moving and compassionate novel that draws the reader in immediately and is short enough to be read in one sitting – which is undoubtedly the best possible way to enjoy its many enviable charms.