Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons
Publication date: May 15, 2018
When Sarah Winman’s Tin Man begins the tragedy of Ellis Judd’s life has already ended. He is a 45-year-old man who works the night shift at a car plant near Oxford, England. He lives alone with a life of monotonous routine and works nights because he can’t sleep. Can’t sleep because he’s left with nothing but memories of his wife, Annie, and his dearest friend, Michael, both of whom died in a car accident five years ago. In one fell swoop the two people he loved most, gone. From that point on, his life was split into before and after and after meant basic survival, nothing more. Until he finds a box of Michael’s belongings in his father’s attic and suddenly, the past becomes the only way forward.
Ellis and Michael have a long history, having met when they were 12. Their friendship deepened into something more in their late teens after the death of Ellis’ mother left him removed from anything other than the prospect of quitting school to go work in the car plant where his father worked. Michael, with his big heart and exuberant nature, is the best balm for the taciturn, emotionally withdrawn Ellis. Later, a trip to France puts them at the crossroads—go one way and it will be a whole new world. Or go back home and life stays the same. Ellis is not able to take that step so they return to Oxford and begin their adult lives and then…Annie. And Ellis is happy and in love and Michael is happy that Ellis is happy. Life is good within their trio, until it’s not, and Michael leaves Oxford for London.
Winman splits the novel into two parts—Ellis’ story and Michael’s. Ellis’ story comes first, which is emblematic, because whether he knew it or not, Ellis always came first. But, despite not hearing from Michael until the second half, his story is the more profound and touching. The depth of his feelings for Ellis and Annie is such that even when Annie tells him that if he meets someone he must bring them round, he cannot fathom the thought.
The idea was incompatible. I could never bring anyone into our three. I had no room to love anyone else.
What becomes clear when he moves to London for six years, a time when they are no longer in touch, is that the impact is greater for Annie and Ellis.
His absence unbalanced them both in a way neither could have predicted. Without Michael’s energy and view of the world they became the settled married couple both had fearing becoming.
In this way, we learn that while Ellis may have been first in the hearts of Annie and Michael, it is Michael who was the knot that bound them gently together.
Recently, I’ve been reading propulsive, drama laden novels (ala The Favorite Sister and The Map of Salt and Stars). Tin Man is their antithesis, a quiet little book that holds the attention, not for its pace, but for Winman’s delicate prose and her characters, simple and profound. Much like Kent Haruf, whose work I adore, she saturates the pages with all the colors and facets of being human. This is a tender novel about the fragility and strength of love and relationships. A novel that quiets the noise and soothes, even when it imparts pain, because it is so real and unadorned.