Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me is an unexpectedly seductive read: if you start it late at night you may find yourself reading on till long past your bedtime. Fortunately for me I started it on a Friday night, so it didn’t matter that it was well after four o’clock in the morning when I finally drifted into sleep, and I was able to finish the book first thing when I woke up on Saturday. It’s that kind of book: it’s delicious.
The voice of Freud’s young narrator is pitch-perfect. Thomas Maggs reminded me of Stephen in Michael Frayn’s Spies, and Leo in The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley. A boy on the cusp of adolescence, observant, good-hearted and thoughtful – but limited in his understanding by his youth and inexperience. The novel is set in 1914 on the Suffolk coast when the Defence of the Realm Act – nicknamed ‘Dora’ by the village – begins to impact on Tom’s parents’ business and on the suspicions of the locals on the Home Front.
While the Blue Anchor is a billet to an endless succession of young men bound for the front, the hours of opening are cut and the beer must be sold half-strength. The one person still able to get full-strength beer is the publican – Tom’s father, a morose and violent drunk nostalgic for his days butchering pigs. Tom, at 12 and with a crippled foot into the bargain, is too young to take him on, but he knows one day he will.
Into the stasis of the village also comes Mr Mac, an artist-architect modelled on Charles Rennie Mackintosh. (To see some of his work so luminously evoked by Freud’s words, click on the link and then on the photo of Mackintosh, then use the arrows to scroll through photos of his designs, including the Glasgow School of Art recently damaged by fire). Mackintosh is a troubled man, resentful about being unacknowledged for his work and anxious about the money from his wife’s inheritance running out. ‘Dora’ prohibits the building of anything new so he is in the village to produce small saleable paintings of wildflowers, one of which you can see on the book-cover. His wife Margaret is an artist too: she worries about her masterpiece, The Seven Princesses – a massive gesso panel in Austria that’s been hidden behind a wall to protect it from destructive anti-British feeling, and she feels guilty about worrying about a piece of art while so many lives are being lost in the war:
‘So,’ Mrs Mac shrugs. And then with no warning tears are streaming down her face. ‘What if no one remembers? What if everyone who knows must leave Vienna, and the seven princesses remains forever sealed in their tomb?’ Her shoulders shake. ‘But at least,’ and to my surprise I find that she is laughing, ‘the colours will not fade. Not like the panels I made for my husband’s houses, which sit above the fireplaces and are already mottled by candle flame, gas lamp and smoke.’
She rises then, and folding the letter back into its envelope she presses it into place in its drawer. She gives herself a little shake. ‘Tell me, how are preparations going for the wedding?’ And without waiting for an answer, she moves through to the kitchen where she pours us both a glass of water from a narrow jug. ‘The thing to remember,’ she takes a gulp, is that it is nothing more than a great lump of plaster of Paris. There are thousands, millions of people who are suffering. It is they who need our prayers.’ And as if to convince herself further, she turns to me and smiles. (p. 257-8)
(Although only a minor point in the novel, the true story of this panel is worth watching on this You Tube video).
Mr Mac is self-absorbed but he notices Tom’s drawings. The boy is obsessed by ships and yearns to go to sea. He has outgrown the village and its small ambitions. He draws sailing ships from memory in the margins of his school books until – poor as they are – the Macs give him a sketch book where he begins to draw other things, including a portrait of Betty, one of the ‘herring girls’ who come down from the highlands each season to gut the fish. (This immediately reminded me of Amanda Curtin’s Elemental which so brilliantly evoked the hardships of this life). They give him paints too, and there is always cake or a sandwich for a hungry boy when he visits. He fits unobtrusively into the quiet of their home, a child that comes and goes, making no demands that would interfere with their art though they are happy to be kind to him when he is there. Tom does not always repay that kindness: there are small acts of betrayal along with other moral lapses. Like other subjects of a coming-of-age novel, Tom has flaws that invite a reader’s complicity.
His loyalty is tested when Mr Mac’s odd behaviour invites suspicion. He spends long hours outdoors, peering into the sea with binoculars forbidden by ‘Dora’. He has an incomprehensible accent, his wife speaks German, and they have correspondence in German. Tom considers it his duty to patrol his patch of the coast in case of invasion, and he is both excited and appalled when the inchoate enemy suddenly materialises in the form of Zeppelins overhead. He has seen bereavement at close hand when almost the entire Suffolk regiment was lost in the early days of the war that was meant to be ‘all over by Christmas’. He knows, as much as any adolescent boy could know, what spies might do…
Author: Esther Freud
Title: Mr Mac and Me
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2014
Source: Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia
Fishpond: Mr Mac and Me