Review: Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud

How I long for the days when I could spend a long afternoon curled up on the sofa in a book. These days, 20 minutes of snatched bus journey or late at night with a book torch are  more likely reading situations. The quality of reading is necessarily affected by having to check where you are in case you miss your stop, or by blearily staying awake for just one more chapter.

I bring this up because sometimes it doesn’t really matter if you have time to indulge in reading or not. Some books can cope with snatched moments. But others are definitely better if you can live in them, absorb them and lose time. Mr Mac and Me is one of those. It’s not just the historical detail, the evocation of a poor agricultural village during the First World War, the storyline of a great man and the circumstances that brought him low or the wistful narration of a crippled boy in the face of events greater than him. It’s the sum of all those things.

I’ll be honest, it was a slow burner. I didn’t immediately get drawn in. But once I’d got so far, I realised I wanted nothing more than to abandon everything else and read till it stopped. I think this is partly because the story doesn’t really get going until halfway through – the set up is nice enough and very evocative but you don’t get really involved till later.

The story is told by Thomas Maggs, a boy in his early teens (though he seems younger than this in his outlook but I guess this is perhaps reflective of the age) who lives with his parents and sister in an inn on the Suffolk coast. Thomas is a reflective observant boy who is haunted by having survived beyond childhood, unlike his elder brothers – there’s a terribly poignant scene where he sits in the graveyard and sees a bunch of starlings which he knows are his brothers, watching him. The sense of responsibility he feels for having made it is acute.

He also likes to draw – mainly boats but he is also keen on drawing the face of a visiting Irish herring girl, Betty. It is his drawing talent that gets him noticed by a visitor to the area – Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Scottish architect and artist. Mackintosh and his wife are in exile, and are trying to make the best of being away from home in a time of war. The artists are both sub characters in the story, enigmatic yet kind, gruff yet welcoming, to the boy, and both encourage his drawing.

In between visits to the Mackintosh’s, Thomas has to go to school, patrol the beaches, work at a local rope makers and do his chores, while avoiding his father’s filthy alcohol-fuelled temper. The conflict across the Channel has serious repercussions for all in the village – from the parents of fighting boys, to boarding houses and the inn now full of soldiers, and tragically to the great architect himself. Mackintosh is portrayed as a gentle but frustrated man, full of passion but  still able to notice the smallest detail of the land around him. But this is Thomas’s story and he is a worthy hero.

I’ve read Freud’s work before but this appears to have more depths to it than some of her earlier novels. I will wallow in it again some day, and relish the astonishing ease with which she paints her pictures with words. For now, I will just tell you to go and read it.

Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud is published by Bloomsbury and is available to buy now. Right now.

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