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'Mr. Mac' Paints Flowers In A Darkening World

Reading Esther Freud's eighth novel — about an English boy's unlikely but life-expanding friendship with Scottish architect and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh — is a bit like watching a watercolor painting take shape. Mr. Mac and Me begins with delicate dabs of color, as 13-year-old Thomas Maggs, the only surviving son of an abusive alcoholic pub proprietor and his long-suffering wife, paints a plaintive picture of life at the aptly named Blue Anchor, in the Sussex village of Walberswick.

But like the painstakingly detailed botanical illustrations Mackintosh works on during his year in Sussex, Freud's novel gradually unfolds to reveal the hardships that the first world war inflicts on an exposed coastal village, the bitter lot of an artist misunderstood and underappreciated during his lifetime, and what it means to learn to really look and see the world.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh washes up in Walberswick in 1914 with his red-headed wife, Margaret MacDonald, a gifted artist in her own right, to recuperate from pneumonia and depression after falling out of favor in his native Glasgow. For those of us in love with Mackintosh's stylized art nouveau designs — and since the late 20th century, his admirers have been legion — it's hard to believe that his brilliance was ever questioned.

Located on the east coast of England, Walberswick and nearby Southwold are particularly vulnerable to foreign attack, and shift rapidly into defense mode when war breaks out. Mackintosh, a caped, pipe-smoking foreigner continually scanning the shoreline with his binoculars in search of native plants to paint, becomes an object of suspicion.

Young Tom longs to escape his bloviating, violent father and sail off to explore other lands. But he settles for patrolling the local beach and cliffs on his "addled leg," on the lookout for spies, zeppelins and anything untoward. He stealthily trails Mackintosh, who inevitably senses his presence. They connect over their shared difficulty walking (the Scotsman, too, has a twisted foot) and love of drawing, striking up an unusual but plausible friendship. And Mackintosh's devotion to his wife, "my Margaret," introduces Tom to the possibilities of love.

"Mr. Mac" teaches Tom to notice and name the local flora — hellebore, wild garlic, hazel, speedwell and fritillaries (also known as snake's-head, chess flower, guinea hen and leper lily; a detail from Mackintosh's illustration of this "gloomy plant" adorns the novel's cover.) "I've never seen anything that looks more like rock cress, not even rock cress itself," Tom says of one of Mr. Mac's illustrations. "Not that I'd taken much care to look at it before."

Freud's passion for the local landscape and lore is palpable. The 10th child of painter Lucian Freud's 14 acknowledged offspring (by six different mothers) and a great-granddaughter of Sigmund, she made a splash with her autobiographical first novel, Hideous Kinky, based on her unconventional childhood in Morocco with her mother and sister. Mr. Mac and Me bears a greater likeness to The Sea House, Freud's other novel set in Walberswick, which is where her paternal grandparents summered, and where she now owns a second home.

Freud has clearly done her research, and seamlessly integrates facts about Mackintosh, World War I and the Defence of the Realm Act into a moving narrative. (Familiarly known as Dora, these wartime edicts involved often onerous restrictions, such as shortened pub hours and watered-down beer, no nighttime lights or fishing, and no new construction — the latter of course devastating to architects like Mackintosh.) In lushly atmospheric prose, Freud captures the rain-whipped seascape and vividly describes already dying arts like the spinning of hemp into twisted ropes, which were rapidly being replaced by the barbed wire Tom finds strung along the cliff path, "this new rope [that] will outlast us all."

But it's her portrait of a famous artist and a young boy both stymied by circumstances that will stir readers. Railing against his lack of commissions, his inability to build his designs, and the stolen credit for his Glasgow School of Art (falsely claimed by his former boss), Mackintosh asks, "How can a man prosper when all doors are closed to him? When the life he is born for is made impossible." Freud's restless, hobbled young narrator, trapped by a nasty father who repeatedly declares he'll "be going nowhere," hopes his father will recognize the similarities between Mr. Mac's plight and his son's. "I look towards Father," he comments. "You see? I want to say. But he is blind to me."

It's a quiet but powerful moment in a book that, like a graceful watercolor, showcases both technical prowess and the sort of subtlety that rewards careful attention.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.