In 1950 Oxford, Dora Judd wins a fine copy of Vincent Van Gogh's Sunflower series, having fallen under its spell--though her husband, Len, resents the work. In 1996, Ellis Judd looks at a color photo of a woman and two men. Cycling home under the sprawling lights of the Cowley Car Plant, Ellis thinks about how far his life is from what he had intended it to be. The house is cold and smells of woodsmoke, its atmosphere leaving Ellis literally gasping for breath. He sees his wife, Alice, who died in a car accident five years ago, as a "peripheral shadow" moving across the doorway.
As dusk moves into darkness, Ellis thinks about his best friend, Michael, and how they held hands while racing down the streets of Southfield. He thinks of his father's house and the front of the wall where his mother's painting used to hang. Ellis thinks about the first time Michael met Dora, how charmed they were by one another. As he walks the towpath to his favorite hangout at Long Bridges, he thinks fondly of ducks calling and the sound of rower's oars slapping against the water.
Thus begins a bittersweet tale of recollection and friendship. Quite a lot happens through a person's life. People are born. People die. People go through trials and tribulations as well as periods of happiness, with counterparts of grief and despair. Such is Winman's chronicling of Michael and Ellis's lives. Back in Oxford, Ellis and Michael act on a generous impulse. In the first summer of their friendship, their first kiss is something good in a day where they swim in the seductive flow of the Thames and sunbathe with their arms behind their heads.
Years later, Ellis still feels Michael's presence. As the pieces of the jigsaw accumulate on all that is past, Ellis longs for the nine days in France and the plans that they made. Back in the present, Ellis struggles to emerge, beset on all sides. He's drawn inexorably to the dark shadow that was once the Long Bridges bathing area, where he and Michael had a place of ownership that extended well into adulthood.
Winman's deft, painterly touch leaves the edges of Ellis and Michael's lives less sharp than they otherwise would be. Winman moves from Ellis to Michael's memories and his ongoing attempts to form a relationship. In Soho in 1990, Michael looks after a dying artist named G. From the postcard of Van Gogh's Sunflowers with a phone number scrawled on the back to G's barn in rural Suffolk, the younger man makes Michael recapture the feelings he had with Ellis: "the boy I'd once been living out the fantasy of a long-gone youth." From the south of France to London's grey skies and the rain-trodden streets of Oxford, the clouds pull away and the sun eventually bids Michael farewell.
Ellis's private world is richly imagined, where the glimpse of yellow sunflowers reflects the quiet shape of two lovers. Despite the short length, the story never feels limited or small. Rather, the tale is urgent in its sense of longing and desire. From the inner workings of a lonely man's heart to the promise of hope, two men face the highs and a series of lows that threaten to tear them apart and bring them back together. In order to reconnect, Ellis retraces Michael's steps to the south of France where, amid the stone cottages and the fields of lavender, the olive groves come alive and Van Gogh's dark cypresses "spear the sky."
Winman doesn't focus on the AIDS epidemic, although she does creatively interject illness as a theme: some men suffer a terrible death while others are damaged by life. Imbuing her novel with a dreamy, almost aphoristic quality, Winman roots her Tin Man in its themes of love, grief, anger, and sexuality. Ellis and Michael's intricate, stream-of-consciousness narrative is part of the long view of them at this time and in this place.