The Oxford Working Class

Tin Man     Sarah Winman     (2017)   


When you picture Oxford, England, you probably think of the imposing towers of the university, the courtyards with berobed scholars fluttering by, the rowers on the river, maybe a scene in a library. You don’t usually think of the working-class people who provide the support infrastructure for this academically oriented city. In Tin Man, Sarah Winman brings these workers into focus.  

The book opens in 1996, when readers meet the middle-aged Ellis, who works as a “tin man” in an Oxford auto factory, repairing small dents in the cars being built. He’s an unhappy widower who looks back on events of his life as he tries to see a path forward. He remembers the early death of his mother, his close friendship during his teen and young adult years with a fellow named Michael, and his happy marriage to a spirited woman named Annie, who also became friends with Michael. Ellis is sad not only about the losses in his life but also about the path he didn’t follow—training as an artist—because he was forced by his father to leave school and take a blue-collar job.  

The second half of this slim volume is the diary of Ellis’s friend Michael, from the years 1989 and 1990. In this segment we learn why Michael is no longer in Oxford in the 1996 segment: he went to London and ended up caring for a lover dying of AIDS. So, you’ve probably guessed that this is a pretty sad story. But it’s nuanced, not banal, plumbing the waters of friendship and love and companionship while revealing the personalities of Ellis, Michael, and, to some extent, Annie. It’s set against the decline of manufacturing in Britain that has created another level of despair. Here’s a scene with Ellis bicycling home from work:  “Along Cowley Road, orange streetlight scattered across the tar, and ghosts of shops long gone lurked in the mists of recollection.” (16-17) 

In his diary entries, Michael captures a social order, just a few short decades ago, that did not accept his sexual orientation:  “How cruel it was that our plans were out there somewhere. Another version of our future, out there somewhere, in perpetual orbit.” (139) And he reflects on his grief:  “I wonder what the sound of a heart breaking might be. And I think it might be quiet, unperceptively so, and not dramatic at all. Like the sound of an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth.” (177) 

If your soul can’t bear the reading of another AIDS story, I understand. I didn’t know this was an AIDS story when I started, and I stayed to the end, where I got some shreds of hope for Ellis’s future.

Books in Brief, Part 4

Here are short reviews of three books that I buzzed through recently.

The Lost History of Stars     Dave Boling     (2017)

The background: The Second Anglo-Boer War (often known as the Boer War, 1899-1902) was fought to determine control of rich gold and diamond mines in southern areas of the African continent. The British Empire sent troops against the Boers, who were mostly descended from Dutch settlers in the region. The outnumbered Boers waged a guerrilla war that outraged the British, who expected to win easily. The British responded by burning Boer farms and herding the women and children from those farms into concentration camps. Twenty-seven thousand of them died. The Lost History of Stars tells of one fictional family’s horrific experiences during this period. I skipped over large chunks of this novel because the story, though well told, became too painful for me. Author Boling has illuminated a “lost history” of terrible suffering, in which the stars of the southern hemisphere and the love of family are among the few bright spots for the characters.

Difficult Women     Roxane Gay     (2017)

My husband prefers philosophy to fiction, but he picked up Difficult Women from the bedside table because he’d heard about Roxane Gay’s 2014 book of essays, Bad Feminist. Here’s his take on Difficult Women: “I used to think that the legislative bodies in the US would work to defeat rape culture and racism. Now we’re relying on fiction writers to draw our attention to the violence and bigotry in our society. These stories are grim—very dark. Almost all the male characters are creepy, and both the male and the female characters are obsessed with sex.” Of the 21 stories in this collection, I read a half dozen, recommended by my husband as the least brutal. For example, “Bone Density” is about a married couple who both have affairs. “The Sacrifice of Darkness” is a moving fable—or maybe a parable—about a miner who can no longer stand underground darkness and flies into the sun, with devastating consequences. Gay’s writing is sharp and slashing. 

Saints for All Occasions     J. Courtney Sullivan     (2017)

The plot of this novel is pretty predictable: Two young Irish women emigrate to Boston in the late 1950s, one of them gets pregnant, and fuss ensues. Stock characters from the Irish-American playbook populate the text:  the alcoholic bar owner, the stoic matriarch, the cruel nuns, the saintly nuns, the pitiful little brother, the dance hall cad, the faithful friend. What bothered me most, as someone who has lived in Ireland, was that the Irish-born characters talked like Americans. I’m not saying that the author should have thrown in “faith and begorrah” to establish Irish cred, but some representation of Irish idiom might have brightened up this serviceable but somewhat plodding family saga. For a much better fictional take on the Irish immigrant experience in the America of the 1950s, I heartily recommend Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn (2009).