At the beginning of Tin Man, a heavily pregnant woman wins a raffle and chooses a framed print of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers despite her husband and his friends chanting at her to pick the whiskey. It was a rare moment of defiance against a brutal drunk, defiance she defended when he was about to destroy the picture in anger. It’s a harrowing and powerful opening. But this is not a book about them. It’s about their son and jumps forward decades into the future.
Ellis Judd works at a car manufacturer in Cowley in Oxford, probably Morris Motor. He is a skilled body man, getting dents out of car doors. He’s the white-glove man making sure the surface is smooth and flawless. He’s training a new guy, repeating the cycle of the man who trained him. Ellis is a man alone. Not that he always was, but those he loved are dead, but he loved deeply and his grief is deep because his love was deep.
Michael was his first love, a friendship that began in childhood and deepened to more as they grew older. But the love that haunts Ellis is his wife Annie. The love and friendship of Ellis, Michael, and Annie is the guiding force of this novel which takes us from the depths of Ellis’ grief to the awakening of hope, not of new love, but hope and joy found in the beauty of the world and of remembered love and friendship.
Half the story is told by Michael, who is also mourning, the loss of a lover to AIDS, the loss of Ellis, and the loss, for a time, of that friendship as he retreated from the bright radiance of the newly-wed Ellis and Annie, but it’s also a story of finding his peace with their love and finding comfort in the world’s beauty.
It’s a bit of a blessing that Tin Man is a small book because a person can only cry so much. This is a sad story of loss and loss and loss, but it’s also very life-affirming with the simple, slow, and difficult process of getting on with life after loss. There are no simple answers, no tying things up with ribbon, but there is a lot of realism about the endurance of hope and love.
This book is beautifully written. Nature is sometimes anthropomorphized as in this quote that took my breath away, “I looked young then and my young was audacious. I lay back in those tiny dusty rooms and let the summer dusk unbutton me.” This book is so full of memorable and beautiful sentences that if I were the highlighting sort, my copy would look a mess. Michael wonders what the sound of a heart breaking might be and decides it would be quite, undramatic, like “an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth.” And without reminding us, trusting us to remember, she uses it again with painful precision.
So, wow, this book is powerful. It’s a quiet book, like a heart breaking, but it reminds us, too, that hearts can mend, even without some intervention, without new loves, but just with time and memory and the ineffable endurance of humanity.
This book is so wonderful that about five pages before the end I stopped reading to go back and reread sections just because there was such pleasure knowing I was reading such an excellent book, I did not want to stop.
Tin Man will be released on May 15th. I received an ARC from the publisher through Shelf Awareness.