Title: Esther Freud Mr Mac and Me
Publisher: Bloomsbury (September 2014)
Genre: literature, English novel, historical novel, coming of age
3 Stars ***
Esther Freud is a British novelist, named as one of the 20 “Best young English novelists” by Granta (1993, after her novel Peerless Flats was published). Yes, she is one of those Freuds, great granddaughter of Sigmund, and daughter of the painter Lucien. She caught my attention because of Sea House (2003) which was loosely based on her grandfather Ernst: another Suffolk house with German Jewish refugee after WWII). She bought a cottage some years ago in Walberswick, and here discovered a famous guest (1914, Charles Rennie Mackintosh) and a ghost, a small boy of 10-12.
Mr Mac and Me is her 8th novel. She was shortlisted for the Llewellyn Rhys prize for her first novel Hideous Kinky (1992) which was made into a film starring Kate Winslet. Another novel Gaglow (1998) was shortlisted for the Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize for Fiction.
The narrator is this story is young Thomas Maggs, whose family is struggling to make a living. He is the only surviving son of an abusive, alcoholic publican, born with a club foot which denies him his dream of going to sea. He is a curious scamp, I wanted to like him, empathized with his hard life, delighted in some of his antics and appreciated his budding artistry, mentored by the Scottish architect and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh (CRM) and his wife beloved Margaret. But.
Thomas is more than a scamp. He has been befriended by CRM, has seen the contrast of their lives, yet he makes curious choices. Not out of place with his status, but rendering friendship meaningless. The jumbled ending confused me, and seems out of character with the rest of the book. My Margaret? Indeed. This has been the recollection of a dying man on seeing the obituary of Mackintosh, followed by memories of the country awakening to CRMs brilliance?
I really wanted to love this book as it concerns my favourite artist. Her depictions of his craft are poetical. I am not aware of other fictional works concerning his story, but have read /own many biographies. I kept reading because of the thread of CRM’s story, an interesting blend of fact and fiction. I loved the sumptuous description of the countryside, the village is a central character. She has a gift for describing the natural world, and is a well crafted, meditative wordsmith. It is a slow, quiet detailed read. The area was known by artists for its light and their paintings capture the ethereal magic.
This is also a good study of the effects of war on everyday life in a small english coastal hamlet. I am delighted she has exposed many people to Mackintosh, as I can’t believe the number of Americans who had never heard of him, even with the great fire that nearly destroyed his Art School masterpiece this year. I was pleased to see a recent review in the NYTimes (Elizabeth Graver Jan 25).
I loved the British cover art of CRMs Fritillaria.
Helen Humphreys The Evening Chorus (2015, WWII rural England)
Helen Dunsmore Zennor in Darkness (DH Lawrence in Cornwall)
Flora Thompson Lark Rise to Candleford (daily village life as experienced by a child)
For CRM biographies:
2010 CRM: Life and Work by James Macauley
2001 CRM by Edmund Swinglehurst
2000 CRM: Architect, Artist, Icon by John McKean and Colin Baxter
1995 CRM by Alan Crawford
My name is Thomas Maggs. Although I’m known as Tommy. And Tom’s what I tell people if I’m asked.
He’s got a gruff voice, low and hard to understand, with rolling Rs and sudden lifts and burrs, and if I close my eye I can hear the chimes and rises in it…
Mac…he looks for all the world like a detective. He’s wearing a great black cape as if he’s Sherlock Holmes.
I eat the little triangle of bread, so fast that I have to search myself for what is in it. Honey.
But the ink smudges against my knuckle and my finger and I am so disappointed I want to take the nub of the pen and stab it into my arm.
He’s built a school and a church in his home city of Glasgow, and houses, unusual houses, for gentlemen that don’t care what anybody thinks.
The truth about Margaret Macdonald, says Mac slowly, drilling the edges of a lead, is that she has genius. Where I have only talent.
I’ve made places for poets and now I’m being reprimanded for misplacing the toilet facilities.
I wanted to work in Glasgow. I wanted to work for Glasgow.
Read as an ARC from Netgalley