“We all had to come out of the dark to sing.” –Love, Beauty, and the Undoing of Master Narratives in Sarah Winman’s “Tin Man”

I don’t know that I have ever read a book of such exquisite beauty that has dealt so powerfully with stories that are so often neglected, misused, and silenced. Sarah Winman’s 2017 novel, Tin Man, tells the story of three people whose love for each other transcends the boundaries of time, memory, and what the world deems to be normal. The way Winman interweaves narratives of connection, identity, beauty, emotion, and queerness into Tin Man is indescribably profound. Her command of prose is nothing short of elegant—she writes with vivid imagery, yet encapsulates the finer nuances of conscious thought and speech at the same time. I cannot currently offer a stronger recommendation to read this book, or any other book, than I am in this moment.

The beginning of the novel sets up the tone of the entire narrative in a way that reverberates beautifully throughout the book. A first act of defiance against a social order that would try to define what should and should not be done brings the purpose of the book immediately to the center: the subversion of master narrative. The undoing of preconceived notions of what it means to be a woman, a man, a person—or to be queer, or to love, or to be in love, or even to act on that love—is a work done throughout Tin Man. And finally, the novel challenges what it means to be human—what it means to be all of these things and survive alongside the constant movement of the world, and the tragedy it so often brings along. Winman uses the metaphor of a “shouting yellow” manifested in the narrative through the sunflowers of Provencal France and the art of Vincent van Gogh to further this subversion, and its effect cannot be understated. It is symbolic of the freedom Tin Man yearns to express, of the vivacity of life and experience, both in pain and in happiness, that permeates the aura of this novel.

Winman undoes the over-used and tired trope of doomed, yet star-crossed gay lovers—stories that so often shiv women onto the periphery—by adding an energy and an unshakable love to the bond between Ellis and Michael and Annie, and by having so much of the book tackle toxic masculinity at face value. The binary of what their world—of what our world—thought these people should be is bent to the farthest point it can go, circling not the backdrop of suffering and agony and jealousy, but of love, respect, and a desire for connection so strong that nothing could shake the bond these three had with each other, nor the bonds they had with the numerous others that shaped their lives. I was so often left in tears of joy and empathy—and most importantly, understanding—reading only short and light-hearted passages of this beautiful work of art. When the book turns and addresses tragedy, injustice, and pain head-on, I felt not only an empathetic sense of grief and solidarity, but also contentment with the way Winman addressed so many painful things in a way that brings the importance of suppressed narratives and the giving of voice to the silenced to the forefront.

Tragedy fills this book. Loss, grief, sickness, and injustice follow the entire story—even the tenderest tales cannot erase the cacophony of sadness and suffering that so often fills the world. Winman aptly and powerfully addresses the HIV/AIDS crisis that underscored so much of the narrative. In a desperate and ominous call between two gay friends living on the periphery of English society, the only word to suffice when one tells the other of his diagnosis is “it.” “I have it,” he said. And that was all the novel needed to do to address the gravity of the AIDS crisis head on; Winman brought it down from the abstract and made it personal. She made it something readers must understand. And then, she goes further: scenes in the hospitals, where hope seemed like it was nothing more than a grey, bleak struggle to make it from one temperature check to the next, where lives of those so young and so bright and so vibrant were drawn down from life into a withering oblivion—these scenes broke my heart and reminded me of what it took from those who came before me to just survive, to live and to tell their stories. When the biggest tragedy of all strikes, Winman addresses grief so profoundly it felt as if the air around me was humming with emotion, with the sadness and the melancholy, but also the happiness and blissful clarity of what it means to be alive, and to have lived, to have had a journey, to have loved.

I cannot stress enough just how powerfully this book deals with identity and how important the work Winman is doing in terms of not just bringing forth a queer story that deals with the AIDS crisis, but also addressing the potency of gendered master narratives that can privilege and problematize queer people, even while they oppress us at the same time. And yet, the novel uses these people to undo those master narratives and give voice to the lived experiences and stories of so many more in the process.

Please, please, read this book. The paperback is available for around $10 on Amazon Prime, and the audiobook (narrated by Sarah Winman herself!!!) is available on Audible, running about 4 hours and 30 minutes.

Also, if you really want to get invested in this book, I made a Spotify playlist of songs that I feel very aptly fit the many varying emotional layers of this novel. It's called "Tin Man Moods."

 

*Book covers are Copyright of Sarah Winman and G.P. Putnam's Sons Publishers