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Review: Mr. Mac and Me, by Esther Freud
Bloomsbury, 2014. 296 pp. $26

Most novels about the First World War, even those of the home front, portray the emotional and physical carnage, which warp everything they touch. But Mr. Mac and Me takes a gentler approach, setting a coming-of-age story within an unusual friendship between a thirteen-year-old boy and the Scottish artist and architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and his wife, Margaret. The war still penetrates daily life, of course, but remains a thing outside, like a beast scratching at the door. The setup feels vaguely threatening, all to the good, yet misshapen in its odd proportions, which ultimately undermines the novel.

Dunwich seafront, 2007 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Dunwich seafront, 2007 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

The beginning plods, as Freud introduces the Maggs family, which runs a struggling pub in Dunwich, a fishing village on the Sussex coast. But eventually, the story gets going. It’s early summer 1914, and Thomas, the young teenager, has two older sisters and six dead brothers, whose loss he feels keenly. The dead are practically his only company, since his brute drunk of a father is best avoided, and his mother carries too many burdens to pay attention to Tom, unless to cuff him for his misdemeanors. Tom befriends his dead siblings by visiting their graves and adopting a family of starlings as though they represented his brothers alive once more, an example of the sensitive, warm touch that Freud shows throughout.

However, he soon has someone else to occupy his vivid imagination. Mackintosh and his wife have taken up residence, and Mac casts a strange figure, striding about the headland and beaches, turning a spyglass on the seascape. At first, Tom thinks Mac must be a detective, for he reminds the boy of Sherlock Holmes. It’s not clear who befriends whom, but the reclusive, troubled architect takes to Tom and encourages his love of drawing–ships, because Tom dreams of going to sea. Margaret, a gifted artist herself, encourages him too and feeds him, having sensed, without ever putting words to it, that he’s neglected. As surrogate parents, they’re a godsend.

But come the war, Mac’s behavior creates suspicion in the village. His tramps around the headland, his spyglass, that he’s an outsider, an artist–a “foreigner,” in other words–all count against him. The coastal folk naturally assume that their plot of earth is the first place the Germans would invade, a fear they embrace with the inflated desire to feel important. Is Mac signaling to enemy ships? Tom himself isn’t so sure, because he’s seen Mac and Margaret’s pamphlets describing exhibitions of their works at Vienna, and the German words he can’t read sound ominous. He soon sees his mistake, though, only nobody else does, and his father is among those most strident in slandering Mac.

Meanwhile, the more compelling story is about Tom’s growing up. Freud’s Suffolk coast is a place where old ways are dying out, and even Tom’s job with a rope maker may fall to progress. His naivete about certain subjects yields to knowledge, though Freud is careful not to let him see too much. I like the skill with which she handles this, as with the village atmosphere and small moments. The passage of soldiers, billeting in town before shipping to France, teaches Tom a little, and his sister Ann even more, unfortunately. Tom has his first love and catches a glimpse of what the war means, beyond uniforms and patriotic back-slapping.

But Mr. Mac and Me never takes flight, mostly because Mac has no voice of his own and never fully emerges. Since he’s not about to tell a thirteen-year-old why he’s depressed–money troubles, career frustrations–Tom has to find this out by steaming open his letters, a betrayal that, disturbingly, hardly registers with the boy. It’s a clumsy authorial device, as with the expository dialogue that Mac spews when he’s particularly angry at the wrongs he’s suffered. The village suspicions, though they have consequences, neither drive the narrative nor resolve it, and the last twenty pages summarize events that deserve a more careful unraveling. Finally, I understand that Freud wanted to focus on the village, but when news comes that a Suffolk regiment has been decimated in battle, the tragedy hardly penetrates, a startling lapse.

Mac and Me was nominated for the Walter Scott Prize in historical fiction. The short list includes three books I’ve covered already: The Lie, by Helen Dunmore (October 27, 2014); The Thousand Things, by John Spurling (March 16); and The Wolf’s Mouth, by Adam Foulds (March 12). I’d be happy if Dunmore or Spurling won, but I still think The Lie–my first review on this site–is better.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.