Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 28, 2019

Tin Man (2017), by Sarah Winman

This lovely book was an impulse loan from the library: the title rang a bell, but it wasn’t until I sat down at the computer to add it to my books at Goodreads that I found Kim’s review at Reading Matters, and from there, a pingback to my own post about the 2019 Dublin Literary AwardTin Man was also shortlisted for the 2017 Costa Novel Award (which Wikipedia tells me was won by Jon McGregor for Reservoir 13, which is a brilliant book IMO).

There are two contenders IMO for the ‘Tin Man’ of the title: Ellis, who discovers too late that he failed his friend Michael when it mattered most, and his father, who is utterly heartless.  The story begins with the narrative of Ellis, who in the 1960s is a sensitive, artistic lad bullied by his father into work as a panel-beater.  At 12, he meets Michael and they form a deep friendship which is sustained by a shared love of the arts and outdoor activity, and nurtured by Ellis’ grandmother Mabel who gives him a home when his mother Dora dies and his father’s affair with the peroxide blonde is more than Ellis can stand.  (Mabel has an enlightened attitude for the time: the UK decriminalised homosexuality in 1967 but if the Wikipedia timeline of LGBT history in the UK is any guide, there was a long way to go in terms of changing attitudes.)

Before long the boys begin experimenting with a sexuality which flourishes later when they take a holiday in France, but it doesn’t survive the return to Oxford, and Ellis marries Annie.  What does survive is friendship and shared interests, and these three form an inseparable trio.  Until suddenly Michael disappears out of their lives altogether.  And Ellis lets this happen…

Michael’s narrative takes over, and is, so appropriately, more emotional.  He has embraced his sexuality, and now in the 1980s he tends to the dying in the AIDS epidemic, checking his own body daily for the tell-tale signs which would mean that he would suffer the same ghastly fate.  (The first reported case of AIDS in the UK was in 1981, AIDS hysteria was rife by 1985.  See the WP timeline). The tenderness with which Michael ministers to G is heart-rending, especially when we know that so many were rejected by friends and family.    But this part of the story is not maudlin: there is humour too, as when Michael forms a friendship with a gravely-ill young patient down the corridor from G’s room.

He told me his name was Chris and that he was twenty-one years old and that his parents believed that he was still backpacking around Asia.  In the quiet space that followed this declaration, I picked up a chair and sat next to his bed.  I asked him where his two friends were, the young man and woman I’d seen hovering by the door a couple of days before.

Gone back to Bristol, he said.  Is that where you’re from? I said.  Yes, he said.  I said I liked Bristol and he said he would’ve liked it better if he’d met me there.  I laughed.  I asked him if he was flirting with me and his eyes became bright.  I’ll take that as a yes, I said. (p.111)

Michael takes on the task of helping Chris to write a letter to his parents, and it takes days because of the emotional freight of this ‘coming-out’.  On a day when the sadness overwhelms him, Michael puts down the pen and begins to rub his feet.

Reflexology is the new sex, I say.  His feet are cold and he smiles as I touch him.  Does this mean we are going steady? he says, and I say, Oh, yes, you’re all mine… (p.112)

Rarely do we read a novel that is so much about love and kindness and friendship without descending into sentimentality.  And although there is loss and grief and regret, there is also hope and resilience:

He walks out to the middle of the golden field, and he thinks, we did have time.  We had so much more than many do.

And he feels all right.  And he knows he’ll be all right.  And that is enough.  (p.195)

Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best liked it too. 

Author: Sarah Winman
Title: Tin Man
Publisher: W F Howes UK, 2018, first published 2017
ISBN: 9781528816700 (Large Print Edition), 197 pages
Source: Bayside Library


  1. Yes, such a lovely and gentle book. Glad you enjoyed it. Reminded me of a condensed version of The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne which I also loved.


    • Books like this make me glad I live in the C21st when gay relationships can be written about with honesty and empathy:)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, this is a coincidence. After trying to whittle a very long list Dublin Literary Award (DLA) 2019 to reasonable proportions…I was not sure if I would read Tin Man and Reservoir 13. Both books are nominated for DLA and your review gave me the nudge to take a chance on these books! We’ll have to wait until 4th April to see if these books make the shortlist!


  3. Thanks for the link, Lisa, and glad you enjoyed the book. I couldn’t remember a damn thing about the story so it was nice to read your review and revisit mine and then it all came back…


  4. I might be too embarrassed to read the foot rubbing scene. But my experience of gay men, which was limited to my pre-HIV university days, is that it was quite unpredictable who would be accepted by their families and who cast out.


    • I think that scene is there to remind us that this was a time when Princess Diana caused headlines around the world when she visited AIDS patients and touched them without wearing gloves…


  5. The title range a bell for me too when your post popped up but I remembered nothing else. To do love and kindness without sentimentality is a real achievement. I wonder if my Mum would like it. She needs kindness and hope right in her reading right now.


  6. This sounds like a great character study. You raise a good point. A story like you describe can really descend into over sentimentality. A skilled writer can avoid this however.

    Great review as always.


    • Thanks, Brian, I think this one is really well done.


  7. […] Tin Man by Sarah Winman – READING (review Lisa) […]


  8. […] Tin Man by Sarah Winman – READING (review Lisa) […]


  9. […] Tin Man –  Sarah Winman –  (review Lisa) […]


  10. […] Tin Man –  Sarah Winman –  (review Lisa) […]


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