Book Review: Tin Man by Sarah Winman

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It begins with a painting won in a raffle: fifteen sunflowers, hung on the wall by a woman who believes that men and boys are capable of beautiful things.

I expected love, jealousy and nostalgia from Tin Man. And I found all those things, yet not in the guise I’d imagined.  The novel is short, less than 200 pages, but Winman manages to encapsulate entire minds and lives within this compact story.

It’s told from two perspectives – that of 46-year-old Ellis, who’s dissatisfied with his working-class existence after losing his wife Annie in a car accident and from Michael, his closest friend, whose wistful recollections are detailed in a journal that Ellis discovers.  Both are historical in the sense that the ‘present’ takes place in 1996 – an unusual choice, but poignant for a reason that becomes apparent later in the book.

With the promise of a love triangle, I anticipated drama, but the novel steers away from high action and veers towards contemplation; the pleasure of living life to the full and savouring the moment.  The relationships are complex and sexuality fluid. There is jealousy, but there is also kindness, respect and mutual affection. Love binds the characters together throughout the decades, beyond death itself – finally bringing redemption.

It’s impossible to share this review without praising Winman’s skill as a writer. Her words are brilliantly concise, and her subtle handling of emotion brought tears to my eyes more than once. The patterning was deft too with clear motifs that steer the reader to key themes – sunflowers, Walt Whitman’s line O Captain! My Captain! (also used to moving effect in Dead Poets Society) and panel beating (the tin man). The structure is intricate with many flashbacks but it holds together convincingly, giving a rounded feel to the novel.

Tin Man isn’t for those who seek plot, but if you are searching for a bittersweet reflection on life and love, then this novel is pretty perfect.  As a new Winman convert, I’m looking forward to reading her other books and will relish my summer days even more after following Ellis and Michael’s journeys.

 

 

 

Book Review: A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Processed with VSCO with l4 presetI enjoy getting lost, literally and metaphorically. I love that sensation of disorientation followed by discovery,  a frightening freedom. Sometimes, on a family day out, we’ll follow unmarked lanes and see where we end up. I also lose a lot of things – keys, tickets, shoes – much to the irritation of my nearest and dearest so was very keen to read A Field Guide to Getting Lost, a collection of essays about loss, losing and being lost.

There are nine meditations in total, inspired by a quote from Meno, one of Plato’s dialogues “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” If you just had to read this several times, you’re not alone! It’s a thought-twister, but as you join Solnit in her contemplations, you begin to get a sense of what she’s searching for.  Only by surrendering to uncertainty, do we find out new ways of being.

This is my first encounter with Solnit’s writing and I was unprepared for the sheer amount of recollections, ideas and information that she covers in a small distance.  Four of the essays are titled The Blue of Distance for “Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance to us.” It is “the light that gets lost”, but the subjects in each essay are diverse – touching on art history, captivity narratives, country and western music, cartography.  In the fourth, there is a fascinating piece about the post-war artist Yves Klein, famous for his exploration of the void.  After reading this, I suddenly remembered how I’d been struck dumb by one of his blue monochromes as a teenager.  I experienced these flashes of insight many times while reading Solnit’s essays. She has a knack for linking moments and facts so that they set off chain reactions that continue beyond the page – taking you into new territories.

But don’t expect sharp clarity here. This is a beautiful, often tragic landscape of meanderings, dreams and musings.  It’s not for one sitting, rather a series of short, intense immersions – a loose invitation to living a curious and expansive life.  As Solnit writes –  “Adulthood is made up of a prudent anticipation and a philosophical memory that make you navigate more slowly and steadily. But fear of making mistakes can itself become a huge mistake, one that prevents you from living, for life is risky and anything less is loss.”

 

 

 

Book Review: The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

I’ll start by confessing that this is the second time I’ve read this book. When I first attempted it, I simply wasn’t in the right mood , and I’m so glad that I gave it another go because this is yet another Rundell triumph.

The story begins with a plane crash and four children – keen explorer Fred, spiky Con and Brazilian siblings, Lila and five-year-old Max.  Alone in the jungle, they have to pool their scant knowledge in order to survive. Despite the terrible odds (snakes, caiman, piranha…yes there are some nasties in the book, but this is the Amazon rainforest after all), Lila’s optimism helps to buoy their spirits and they manage to stay alive.  But they also need to find a way to return home, and this is where the Explorer comes in.  I won’t give too much away – needless to say that Rundell has once again fashioned a truly memorable character capable of both anger and kindness, not entirely likeable yet with good reason.  His voice lends a wider perspective to the novel – touching on subjects such as the environment and colonialism without beating the drum too loudly.

The writing is satisfying as always.  I found the prose cleaner than in Rundell’s earlier works but her trademark inventiveness can still be found in phrases such as ‘The ants were so small it was like being covered in full stops, ‘ and ‘The jungle was an infinite sweep of green: a Turkish carpet for a god.’ Personally, I preferred this simpler style and it carried me swiftly through the book, deftly revealing how the children become mentally and physically stronger, as well as closer to one another. There’s a sense of repressed emotion throughout the novel, which made the ending all the more moving. And I loved the epilogue. It was the perfect way to end this exciting tale and leave us hoping that there might be another story to follow.

I’d recommend The Explorer for fans of survival and discovery stories – think Bear Grylls meets The Lost City of Z.  If you’ve read it, I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments!