In this week’s Big Issue North we interview Sarah Winman about Tin Man. The author of the bestselling When God was a Rabbit and A Year of Marvellous Ways returns to familiar themes in her third novel but transports readers to working-class Oxford to tell the story of Ellis, an artist who has channelled his talents into a life of trade work and suppressed much more along the way.
She explains how the book came about and talks about the tension between father and son that is so palpable in the extract below. “The ideas came like this: a working-class man who is a talented artist. A man restricted by choice and opportunity, and destined to work in the car factory as his father did. A father who had the same lack of choice and education. A father who went to war and came back changed. A father who, due to his own shame, can’t encourage his son but harbours an unconscious desire to defeat him.”
Ellis went to the window. The clock ticked quietly behind him, light from the Italian café spilt yellow on to the white street in front. He heard Mabel say, I expect you’re hungry, and Michael said, No, not really, and he came and stood next to Ellis, instead. They looked at one another in the reflection of the glass and snow fell behind their eyes. They watched a nun make slow and careful progress towards the church of St Mary and St John next door. Mr Khan came back into the room and pointed.
Look! he said. Penguin! he said, and they laughed.
Later that night, in Michael’s room, Ellis said, Are they really full of books?
No, just the one, said Michael as he opened a suitcase.
I don’t read, said Ellis.
What’s that then? said Michael, pointing to the black book in Ellis’s hand.
My sketchbook. I take it everywhere.
Can I see?
Sure, and Ellis handed over his book.
Michael flicked through the pages, acknowledging images with a slow nod of his head. He suddenly stopped.
Who’s that? he said, holding open a page at a woman’s face.
Does she really look like that? asked Michael.
Don’t you think so?
She’s my mother.
He shrugged. Just walked out.
D’you think she’ll come back?
I’m not sure she knows where I am any more, and he handed back the sketchbook. You can draw me if you want, he said.
OK, said Ellis. Now?
No. In a couple of days, he said. Make me look interesting. Make me look like a poet.
Ellis turned away from the window. A bus inched into view and he crossed the road and waved it down. He sat alone at the back and closed his eyes. He felt groggy all of a sudden. The disorientation of mixing memory and medication.
He rarely went to his father’s house when nobody was there, rarely went when only his father was there, truth be told. He did anything to avoid the wordless connection neither felt comfortable with. He got off the bus before he needed to and walked the rest of the way under a sky that was becoming overcast again. What was it about these roads that plunged him into a state of childlike anxiety?
The light had virtually disappeared by the time he reached the front door, and a feeling of foreboding had taken hold. He put the key in the lock. Inside, the sound of traffic retreated and the grey light darkened, and it could have been evening. He felt nervous and unsure, now it was just him alone with the years.
The house was warm, and that was all Carol had wanted to know, whether they’d left the heating on to counteract the imminent freeze. He could go now, and yet he didn’t. The perverse pull of the past drew him inside to the back room, virtually unaltered since the days of his youth.
The room smelt of dinner, still. A roast. They always had a roast the night before they went away because they never knew what the food would be like at the hotel.
That was his father’s thinking for sure. He looked about. The table, the dresser – that dark slab of oppressive oak – the mirror, so little had changed. The armchairs might have been re-covered but tug away the maroon and navy Bute, and the melancholic imprint of the past was still there. He opened the curtains and looked out on to the garden. Faint patches of snow amidst the rockery.
Crocus heads wistful and purple, and the Car Factory over there showing a fake dusk. He noticed the carpet had been changed but the overwhelming hue of brown hadn’t. Maybe Carol had put her foot down? Maybe she had said either it goes or I go. Maybe Carol was the kind of woman who could make those demands without repercussion. He stood in front of the wall opposite the door where his mother’s painting of the Sunflowers used to hang.
She would suddenly stop in front of that painting, and whatever she was saying or doing at that precise moment came to an abrupt halt in the presence of the colour yellow. It was her solace. Her inspiration and confessional.
Tin Man by Sarah Winman
is out now (Tinder Press, £12.99)