By Helen Skinner
In Mr Mac and Me, Esther Freud paints a beautiful portrait of a small rural community and the ways in which it is affected by war. Our narrator is young Thomas Maggs, a quiet and observant thirteen-year-old boy who has grown up in the Blue Anchor Inn on the Suffolk coast. Life is difficult for Thomas and often very lonely; his father is an alcoholic, his mother is still grieving for the six babies she has lost, and his two sisters are growing up and have lives of their own now. Thomas wishes he could go to sea, but knows that his twisted foot will prevent him from pursuing that particular dream.
In 1914, two newcomers – a man and a woman – arrive in the village and begin to paint the flowers and the scenery. The man is the Scottish artist and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the woman is his artist wife, Margaret MacDonald. With Margaret frequently returning to Glasgow, Mackintosh spends his time walking in the countryside, sketching, taking notes and looking out to sea. Recognising another lonely soul, Thomas befriends ‘Mr Mac’, joining him on his walks and watching him as he paints.
With the outbreak of war, however, the villagers become suspicious of Mr Mac and soon even Thomas begins to wonder why his new friend is receiving letters from Germany addressed to Herr Mackintosh. Has Mac really come to Suffolk just to admire the scenery or is he up to something more sinister?
Mr Mac and Me is a beautifully written novel, the first I’ve read by Esther Freud. The book consists of lots of very short chapters and at first I thought this would be a book I could read quickly. It isn’t; it’s a book that deserves to be read slowly. The chapters may be short, but each one is packed with insight and each one provides a snapshot of life during the First World War as seen through the eyes of a boy too young to fully understand what is going on.
While Thomas knows that terrible things are happening across the sea, as a teenage boy he is more aware of the little things that have a more immediate impact on his life. Near the beginning of the novel, a copy of DORA (the Defence of the Realm Act) is displayed in the town square and we see how this shapes the lives of Thomas, his family and his neighbours in the months that follow. As the son of an innkeeper, the DORA guideline ordering the watering down of beer is one Thomas finds particularly notable, as is the one restricting the use of binoculars…another reason why Mac, who uses them to gaze at the sea and to study the landscape, finds himself under suspicion.
There are also some lovely, evocative descriptions of the Suffolk coastline and of the natural world. Thomas spends a lot of time observing the two artists as they work and is particularly interested in how Mac goes about painting the flowers he has collected on his countryside rambles, with so much care given to capturing the beauty of every petal and every leaf. Towards the end of the book, beginning with the approach of a Zeppelin, the story takes a more dramatic turn which was slightly disconcerting as up to that point the pace had been very relaxed…but maybe the dramatic ending was a necessary culmination of everything else that had been slowly building throughout the first part of the story.
While Charles Rennie Mackintosh really did spend some time in Suffolk during the war and the novel is based on historical fact, if you’re hoping for an in-depth account of the work of Mackintosh and Margaret MacDonald you will need to look elsewhere. The real strength of Mr Mac and Me is in its portrayal of Thomas and his daily life: filling his school books with sketches of ships instead of the letters he’s supposed to be copying; working for the village rope-maker after school in return for a shilling at the end of the month; listening to the singing of the herring girls who come down from Scotland to pack fish. It’s a way of life that has gone forever but through the story of Thomas Maggs, just for a while, Esther Freud has brought that bygone world to life once more.
Esther Freud, Mr Mac and Me (Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2014), 978-1408857182, 304 pages, hardback.