I’d previously read and enjoyed Esther Freud’s Hideous Kinky and Peerless Flats so I said yes, I would like to read Mr Mac and Me. It’s very different from the others. Set, like so many novels published this year, in the period of the First World War, it tells the story of Thomas Maggs. He’s a Suffolk boy with ‘a twisted foot’, the only surviving son of a drunken publican father and a hardworking mother. His ambition is to be a sailor but his father hates the sea and his mother fears all the time for his safety, determined not to have one living son who ‘survived for nothing’.
When writing her semi-autobiographical novels, Esther Freud knew her subject. Unfortunately, she knows 0 about the First World War. Tom’s sister Mary comes rushing home to announce that they’ve heard ‘on the radio’ at the big house where she works, that war has broken out. Remarkable, since the BBC didn’t start broadcasting until 1922. Then Tom and his mother go to read the new DORA which has been posted up. This seems to have been cut and pasted from Wikipedia. To add to my difficulty in continuing with the book after these annoyances, it turns out that ‘Mr Mac’ is Charles Rennie Mackintosh and I tend not to like fiction about real people. So, how did I get on with the rest of the book?
It’s really rather beautiful as an account of life in a Suffolk village in the early twentieth century. The local community and its various characters are well described and believable. A damp, misty wateriness pervades the book: the mud and the marshes, a wreck off the coast, Tom spearing eels and flounders. There is something of Great Expectations in this, down to Tom’s six little dead brothers in the churchyard. Tom is a touching character: naïf, ignorant, anxious. He’s an artistic boy with an eye for beauty but a mind cramped by his hard home life and the poor education he receives unwillingly at ‘that fancy school’. He has his dreams but his prospects are limited given his disability and his parents’ desire to keep him ‘helping out’ at home for ever.
At the heart of the book is his friendship with the strange visitor, ‘Mac’, and this is where, for me, it all goes wrong. If what you really want to write is a book about Charles Rennie Mackintosh and how little he was appreciated during his lifetime, why go about it in this convoluted way? The research has gone into the biography and it’s all churned out here in the most unlikely manner. It strains belief that Mac would tell his life story to a bunch of locals in Tom’s Dad’s run-down pub, or that he and his wife would talk to Tom about their work past and present, going over his head and frightening him with their use of German words. The poor lad fears that even to receive a letter written in German is somehow treasonable.
Quite suddenly, after a dramatic event, it seems that Tom is having a long, watery dream. Possibly he is ill or dying? Certainly the whole pace of the book changes, like a film being fast forwarded. It's rather confusing. Then you find that we’re actually looking as it were through the wrong end of Mac’s binoculars, with Tom seeing not a fantasy future, as you might think, but looking far back at his own life and seeing the end of Mac’s. It’s very strange and haunting.
For me, the different stories in the book don’t gel as they should. I would have enjoyed Tom’s story and possibly Mac’s but the two together were too much for me to credit. Lovely cover!
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It will be published by Bloomsbury on September 11th.