I have somehow missed the Sarah Winman train. Her debut novel When God Was a Rabbit won awards all over and turned her into an international bestseller. Her second novel, A Year of Marvellous Ways also received rave reviews.
Up to the time of writing this I have read neither one of them. I joined her fan club only with her third novel, Tin Man which I finished last week. I have now bought her first two books so I will be on a Winman binge for a couple of weeks which is a lovely thing to look forward to.
I usually do not review non-African books for this column, but I think as writers we can learn a lot from Tin Man and also it is a fabulous book. In the first scene of the book we find Ellis’ mother taking a stand for herself against her bullying husband when she wins a raffle and, though her husband wants her to choose the expensive bottle of whiskey, she instead takes the reproduction of Vincent Van Gogh’s sunflower painting. She then defiantly hangs it in their sitting room and warns the husband not to touch it. He never does.
I doubt there is a reader who would not be pulled into the book by the dramatic tension of that scene.
You are waiting for the husband to carry through with the violence he threatens.
You are waiting to see if the wife will stand her ground up against the threats. You wonder why she is so attached to that painting.
Throwing your reader directly into the action is how to start a book. As readers, we do not know who this woman is, we do not know why this painting is so important to her. These questions build the dramatic tension further. A lesser writer would have dumped lots of back story on the reader’s head, answering all of the questions in their minds and dissipating that beautiful tension that is holding the reader so tightly. Winman does not. She trusts her readers to stay with her even with their questions and slight confusion.
Tin Man is primarily a tender story of love in all its varied and magical forms. Ellis and Michael are best friends and grew up together. Ellis’ mother, the winner of the raffle painting, becomes in many ways a mother to the abandoned Michael too. She sees in the boys the playing out of—
Ellis and Michael’s friendship grows into something more. On a trip to France as young men, their love blossoms and they dream of a different sort of life together.
But then, suddenly, Winman pushes the reader forward and there is Ellis, grieving his dead wife Annie. As readers we do not know how he got from where he was to here. We wonder where Michael has disappeared to. Again questions that keep you reading until late into the night because of the urgency to know. Doesn’t every writer want that?
Winman’s prose is light, spare and beautiful. She passes through heavy terrain with such a gentle touch and with absolute respect for her readers, which in many ways is even more important.
If a character has a dark spot and the reader is told it is Karposi’s Sarcoma, we do not need any more. We know what has happened, what will happen. Winman knows this.
She writes so empathetically of her characters that you are sure they are real people. I finished the book and wanted Ellis over for dinner so that I might cry with him he was so real to me. The book starts and ends with sunflowers that weave in and out of the narrative. At the beginning the sunflowers help a woman to stand her ground, they show two boys the beauty of art and that men can be loving and beautiful too.
The sunflowers were painted long ago as a gift from a tortured sad artist to his friend, as a gift to love. Michael, after devastating loss, like a pilgrimage, goes in search of the sunflowers that heal a bit of what can be healed, and, in the end, when all that he loved is gone, Ellis too finds relief in that field of sunflowers.
The structure of the book, passing back into memory slowly building forward, with the string of the sunflowers running through might be unwieldy in less deft hands, but not in Winman’s. Certainly Tin Man will join my growing pile of best books ever. I highly recommend it.