by Esther Freud

3 and a half stars

MrMacIt’s 1914, and twelve year old Thomas Maggs, lame since birth, lives with his parents in The Blue Anchor, an old inn in Walberswick, on the Suffolk coast. Tom’s life is a lonely one: his father is a drunk, his mother grieves for her lost babies, his sisters are older – Mary is away in service and Ann thinks mostly of boys and marriage. Tom’s days are dominated by his rambles through the countryside, and to the sea he adores – Tom dreams of a life at sea, a dangerous calling his parents seem determined to keep him from. There’s little excitement in Tom’s life, until the arrival of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife, Margaret MacDonald; exotic flowers in tiny, parochial Walberswick.
Charles Rennie is as lonely as Tom: his wife is frequently away in Glasgow, dealing with family troubles and Charles fits uneasily into village life as the mistrusted ‘foreigner’ with his binoculars, always watching out to sea – a risky pursuit in wartime, when all the eastern coast is on alert for German spies and even small, sleepy fishing villages are under threat of invasion and attacked by Zeppelins. Tom and Mackintosh strike up a strange, shy, stilted friendship based on art and nature: Mac paints his flowers, Tom obsessively sketches boats and dreams of the sea. The main character in this novel is not Tom, or Mackintosh, or any of the human players, but the Suffolk countryside itself – the woods and meadows; the beach and the sea; the rolling waves of weather that bathe and batter the land; the murmurating starlings, which Tom names and takes for the spirits of his dead brothers; the flowers that Mackintosh paints and which Tom’s mother places on the graves of her lost sons – which is eulogised above all else, the constant, unchanging background on which all else is played.
Despite the tension and tragedy, the constant threats from the not-so distant war, Mr Mac and Me is a very gentle book. Pain and tragedy abound in every life, but the characters are stoical; they accept what life brings, pick themselves up and get on with it – or not. Life is sometimes too tragic for some; those who never recover from life’s blows. There are no dramatic highs and lows. Joys come, tragedy strikes: all is woven into the tapestry of a life that has has barely changed in a thousand years.
The characters are well drawn individuals; Mackintosh and Margaret stand out, of course; the discordant notes in this unchanging world. The rest are background, for the most part; highlights in a colour-washed, watercolour scene; they play on a low volume, but all are nicely done. Keep an eye on Tom’s father; I thought I had his number, a bit of a cliché, I thought, but I was wrong. Tom’s father was the only one who surprised me. I feel I need to re-read the novel now, watch out for the clues.
The ending bothered me badly. The pace suddenly changes and we whisk through the years and Tom’s father’s fears come to pass despite it all. But there was nothing of letters home, of his poor mother, left grieving and – without spoiling, it’s hard to say what upset me, but it did, quite a lot. I thought it a poor ending to such a marvellously slow unfolding of a tale.