This book by Esther Freud with the very beautiful cover was lent to me by an artist friend. Both of us hail from Norfolk, both of us love the Suffolk seaside towns of Walberswick and Southwold, the setting for this book. I am fond of Esther Freud’s writing and my friend is rather fond of the artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh of whom this book is about.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh is the ‘Mr Mac’ of the title and this book is about a period of his life during the first world war that he spent on the Suffolk coast. He arrives as a mysterious Scotsman in a black cape, wollen hat and smoking a pipe. The locals immediately christen him Mac which is how he is known throughout the novel. The arrival of Mac and his red haired artist wife Margaret become a source of fascination and intrigue to Thomas Maggs. Thomas is the only surviving son of a local publican. He lives with his parents and sister above the pub. Thomas loves the sea and dreams of setting sail, he helps his parents, he adores his sister, he goes to school and he works for a while with the local rope maker, and he loves to draw ships. Apart from the alcohol outburst of his father, life is generally quiet and predictable. Thomas has a ‘deformed’ foot and a limp and is told to expect little from life.
However, he is naturally inquisitive and gradually he begins to visit Mac and his wife at their home watching them in silence as they work and paint. They provide a haven of peace away from his difficult father and the domestic violence that lurks at home. As war is declared suspicion surrounds Mac. The locals question his reasons for night time walks and the time he spends gazing out to sea through his binoculars. Thomas has grown very fond of the Scotsman and takes on the role of friend and protector.
Esther Freud has used this period of Mackintosh’s life when he was down on his luck and going largely unrecognised for his many great works to weave a story of friendship and loyalty. Fact and fiction is cleverly intertwined throughout the novel. The detail of both Mac and Margaret’s watercolours of flowers are portrayed so clearly and beautifully that I found myself scouring the internet to look at them.
This is a hugely enjoyable and well written book by an author who clearly knows her subject and as a part time Suffolk resident also clearly knows her setting.
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