In the opening pages of Sarah Winman’s new novel, “Tin Man,” Dora Judd wins a Christmas raffle and, in an act of singular defiance, forgoes a more prized bottle of Scotch in favor of a reproduction of van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.” As a girl, she’d seen the original painting while on a school trip and “knew immediately that this was the life she wanted: Freedom. Possibility. Beauty.”
The painting, and its attendant longings, arc through Winman’s novel like sunflowers following the sun. After Dora wins the raffle, the story leaps forward in time, focusing on her now middle-aged son, Ellis, a man drowning not just in loneliness and grief but in the realization that his “life was far from how he had intended it to be.”
Ellis is an artist who no longer makes art, working nights at the same car plant as his distant father before him (the book is largely set in the late 1980s and mid-1990s, before globalization altered Britain’s industrial landscape). Each morning, he cycles home to an empty house. During one shift, choked by a loss he still cannot allow himself to name, he leaves the factory early, takes off onto a snowy road and is knocked from his bike.
“I’m stuck,” a recuperating Ellis tells his late wife, Annie, killed five years before in a car accident. “Go find him,” her ghost admonishes. “Him” is ostensibly Michael, Ellis’s best friend. The two met as boys when an all-but-orphaned Michael moved to town, carrying a suitcase full of books. “You can draw me if you want,” Michael tells Ellis that first day. “Make me look like a poet.”
Part mother, part mentor, part muse, Dora takes both boys under her wing, offering a glimpse of what beauty and possibility might look like beyond the looming car factory — and, also, what masculinity might look like to sensitive boys coming of age in 1960s Britain. “Men and boys,” she tells them, “should be capable of beautiful things. Never forget that.”
Dora’s early death fuses the boys; their friendship becomes one such beautiful thing. And then, suddenly, it doesn’t. Ellis marries Annie, and for a time, the three of them become a family, “so daft and so happy,” Annie and Michael the manic pixie dream team to Ellis’s straight man. Then Michael disappears from their lives. The heartbreaking reasons emerge near the end of the book when Michael’s first-person narrative takes over. If you don’t enjoy crying in public, this section is best read in private.
Winman (“When God Was a Rabbit”) has crafted something of a small miracle here. Though the novel clocks in at a only little over 200 pages, so much is contained in it — the complicated nature of love, the power of art to inspire and sustain, the half-life of grief and regret, the liberation of (French!) travel, the grace found in small moments of kindness — it’s like a literary version of a Tardis. It seems impossible that it all fits, yet the slow build of emotion and the cascade of quiet, well-earned tears are testament to how rich this meditation on love, art, loss and redemption truly is.
By the end of the novel, not much has happened. Ellis is still alone. But his mother’s copy of “Sunflowers” has made its way back into his possession, and Ellis has made his way back to both Michael and himself. Because while freedom, possibility and beauty are all worthy goals, Michael understands the necessary binding ingredient: “Love,” he notes, “is crucial to freedom.”