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BookBrowse Reviews Mr. Mac and Me by Esther Freud

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Mr. Mac and Me

by Esther Freud

Mr. Mac and Me by Esther Freud X
Mr. Mac and Me by Esther Freud
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2015, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2015, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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In Freud's eighth novel, an adolescent boy and a famous architect form an unlikely bond in their coastal English village at the start of World War I.

As Mr. Mac and Me opens in 1914, narrator Thomas Maggs is thirteen years old. His parents run the Blue Anchor pub in their Suffolk village, on the eastern coast of England. His father is an abusive drunk, and his mother has never gotten over the deaths of six of her children from various illnesses. Tommy is apprenticed to a rope-maker but dreams of going to sea and spends all his free time drawing boats. When the Great War begins, he hopes to join the Navy when he is older. His father dashes his ambitions by reminding him that no one will accept a cripple, a reference to Tommy's club foot.

Luckily, Tommy finds a role model and everyday hero in Mr. Mac – Charles Rennie Mackintosh, that is (see 'Beyond the Book') – a Scottish architect and illustrator who is staying in Suffolk with his artist wife in a humble seaside studio. It so happens that Mac also walks with a limp: one leg is longer than the other, so he uses a stacked shoe and a cane. Here is an ordinary man who has overcome a minor disability to become a celebrated artist.

The village morphs slightly after the declaration of war. The "herring girls" still come down from Scotland each summer to gut fish, but for the rest of the year the inn hosts soldiers or Belgian refugees. People are much more suspicious now. Even Tommy scans the coast every morning for anything amiss. "See Everything. Hear Everything. Say Nothing," the propaganda posters warn. A shipwreck and a Zeppelin crash prove their fears are justified.

Tommy also spends more time at Mac's cottage, even skipping school to share their afternoon teas. He is fascinated by the couple's work in progress – and their pamphlets in German. The villagers, on the other hand, are increasingly wary of Mac for his bohemian ways, as well as his professional connections with Germans and that habit of walking along the beach with binoculars. Could Mackintosh be an enemy spy? Tommy is unsure whether to trust his new friend, but family problems steal his attention away before he can make a full investigation into the situation.

Esther Freud concentrates a whole range of wartime experiences and emotions – fear, courage, and doubts – into this one village, and one young man trying to make his way. Tommy is a gently companionable narrator, and through him readers get what feels like a privileged glimpse into the life of a historical figure. Freud sets up an especially good contrast between the idyllic beauty of an English village and the perils of wartime, as this beautifully observed passage reveals:

It is hot today, the flowers blazing, and white butterflies flutter by my feet. The air smells sweet of elderflower, and the sheep on the low field are fattening and content. If I don't look east to where the barbed wire is coiled along the cliff, I wouldn't know there was a war. I stop and listen for guns across the water, but hard as I strain my ears I can only hear the birds chattering, and the heavy drone of a bee.

With such language, Freud connects her story to a long pastoral tradition in British literature. The way she writes about countryside locations recalls Dickens (who depicted the wonder and menace of the Kent marshes and coast so memorably in Great Expectations and David Copperfield) and Thomas Hardy, and I also wondered whether Tommy's club foot might form a subtle link to the protagonist in Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham.

What with the centenary of World War I, the time is right for reading books set in the early twentieth century. Although Mr. Mac and Me is set during the war, it is a distinctly offbeat selection, more about family relationships and unlikely friendships than it is about the actual conflict. A final section serves as a kind of "what happened next," giving all the characters real (in Mac's case) or imagined afterlives. Provided you do not go in expecting lots of thrills, you should enjoy the cozy English village setting and happily travel along on Tommy's adventures.

Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in February 2015, and has been updated for the November 2015 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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