Review: Mr Mac and Me, Esther Freud

This one has sat on my shelf looking at me accusingly for months.  I received a free copy from Goodreads and then Christmas happened and so it has taken me five months to get around to it.  To be fair, I was always going to.  This is only the second Esther Freud novel which I have ever read but I’m not entirely sure why – I loved Hideous Kinky when I read it but somehow never got round to investigating her other work.  Mr Mac and Me is a significant departure from her first heavily autobiographical novel and, focussing instead on Charles Rennie Maclintosh and that curious incident in the artist’s life when he came to be imprisoned for two days on suspicion of being an enemy spy during World War One.

The novel is narrated by twelve year-old Thomas Maggs, a young boy who is sole surviving son to the local publican; Thomas has two elder sisters with concerns of their own and a cluster of brothers who died in infancy up in the local cemetery.  Fact and fiction mix here as Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald did indeed rent a house in the Surrey area, seeking somewhere where ‘Mac’ can recover from pneumonia and the ignominy of having been cast out of the Glaswegian art community.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Esther Freud is a sure-footed writer, constructing fluid and lyrical prose.  As with the nameless child at the centre of Hideous Kinky, Thomas is a convincing young narrator unpolluted by sentimentality or faux-naivete but at times it did feel as though his moments of realisation felt slightly forced.  The novel is at its most successful in describing the village in which Thomas lives, the call of the sea, the changing seasons, how Thomas’ mother’s sorrow lurks in her visits to her sons’ grave in the churchyard.  Making an interesting comparison to Mac, there is a sense of artistry at work as George Allard instructs Thomas in the art of weaving twine.  The passages describing Mackintosh’s background do not flow as well, as he relates his career history is large undigested chunks to a startled Thomas.  We are supposed to view these monologues as part of Mac’s depression but somehow it fails to convince that he would so unburden himself to a child.  In a similarly shaky plot device, Thomas and his elder sister steam open Mac’s letters to his wife out of curiousity at their relationship.  The words are very beautiful but our viewpoint feels odd and suspending disbelief becomes difficult.

Having read Zeppelin Nights comparatively recently, it was interesting to read Freud’s depiction of the paranoia summoned up by the Defence Of The Realm Act (otherwise known as Dora).  Thomas frets over the German words he overhears and worries that repeating them will make him a traitor.  He is appalled to see someone smoke in the street, worries when the Zeppelin comes that he has done something amiss and will be blamed.  While it was interesting to discover more about Mr Mac – I have long thought his designs incredibly beautiful – I found myself more interested by the characters born of Freud’s own imagination than I was in those drawn from real life.  The part towards the conclusion when Thomas is lowered down the well to attach a rope to what has fallen down is truly haunting and made me feel that a far more affecting and much more streamlined novel could have been written without the Mackintoshes who seem to exist outside of the novel’s main action.

This is a gently written novel, easy in its treatment of all of its characters.  As with Hideous Kinky, it has a slightly muted feel even when events of high emotion are taking place.  Yet, with the advent of the centenary of World War One, it feels slightly gimmicky to note Thomas’ future longevity and project him into the future.  As a reader, I had grown accustomed to the dreamy young boy who draws ships and dreams of the sea – it feels strange to send him somewhere he did not belong.  I enjoyed Mr Mac and Me but felt it was a book that wore its research with a certain worthiness, which in turn meant that the story’s inner workings were laid bare, disappointing in an author whose work has in past been so seamless.

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I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing on September 11th 2014
Genres: Fiction, General, World War I
Pages: 293
ISBN: 1408857189

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3 thoughts on “Review: Mr Mac and Me, Esther Freud

  1. I've not read anything of Esther Freud's but when I saw it was based around the life of Macintosh it sounded interesting, but… I know from the reliability of your reviews that I wouldn't like it.
    Firstly, interweaving a real person with a known history with a fictional life is always risky. Then make a child the narrator is also risky. So being a great admirer of Macintosh's work I just sense it's not for me.
    Your point about how the fictional parts are more interesting than the factual, where she is almost just showing off how much research she had done.
    I'm a great fan (almost obsessive!) of Vivaldi (and the Four Seasons) and have read two or three novels of his life in Venice, and they all suffer from the same problem
    Macintosh had an interesting life as it was, why not a straightforward biography?

  2. Oh, cheers Mike – nice to know my reviews seem trustworthy 🙂
    I think the child narrator has worked very well for Esther Freud before (can't just use her surname, it doesn't sound right). Still, I think in this instance that she wasn't able to link up the child's perspective to adult action in quite as seamless a way as she has done in the past. And yes, I think that straightforward biographies are often the best way to go for finding out about a person's life – it's the same as the way I like the Alison Weir biography of Katherine Swynford better than either of the historical novels about her. Still, I guess that historical fiction does sell …

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