Even as I write this review, I’m tempted to re-read Esther Freud’s shimmering, compelling eighth novel that refuses to be pigeonholed. War looms on its horizon, like “the belly of a Zeppelin ... a second moon,”
yet it is not just a novel about war. Nature abounds, sensuously observed through the pristine eyes of the child narrator, who sees the sun as “just a slither of a yolk above the trees
,” and intuits, observing an artist, that wild flowers can grow on the ground and on a painter’s canvas. Yet, this is neither just a coming-of-age story nor merely a fiction based on facts about a year in the life of a famous artist. It is all of this and more.
As the gripping story unfolds, summer is not yet over on the Suffolk coastline, but the seaside village of Walberswick is shaken up by the outbreak of the First World War. Visitors evacuate in droves; regiments of soldiers arrive to be billeted locally till they cross into Belgium; local youths enlist, leaving the village to the women, the elderly and the children. Faced with the stringent security regulations of the Defence of the Realm Act, the locals grow paranoid over the possibility of any spies amongst them.
The only “foreigner” remaining in the village, a loner with binoculars, comes under suspicion. This is “Mr Mac.” Unbeknownst to the locals, he’s the renowned and controversial Scottish architect and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who designed the Glasgow School of Art, but feeling under-appreciated, he moved here with his artist wife.
Only a sensitive young boy, Thomas Maggs, the crippled 12-year-old son of the abusive village pub-keeper, longing for adventure follows the artist and trusts him, the two forming a mentor-protégé relationship of sorts.
Weaving and braiding strands of facts and fiction, and flicking the rope with her creative magic, Esther Freud sets vibrating in our guts an imagined world.
This is the beating heart of a lyrical story, told in the first person by Thomas, blending fact and fiction. To me, the factual, the oblique biography of Mackintosh in his declining years painting his famous botanical watercolours, interested me less than the fictional exploration of a war-torn English village in the 1900s.
Esther Freud, the great-grand daughter of Sigmund Freud and daughter of Lucien Freud the painter, has with psychological insight and an artist’s eye for detail painted a novel of beauty and compassion.
What fascinated me more than the world of artists and art, was the life of the artisans: The stories of the farmers, the fishermen, the rope-makers, the pig-raisers, the hired herring-gutting highland girls, all following their age-old trades, battling the crushing poverty, and the extra hardships brought on both by the war and the onslaught of industrialisation, with machinery replacing human labour.
But no matter how dire the life led by young Thomas is, his experience of the external world of nature and events, and the internal one of complex relationships and emotions are described within short chapters in the most resonant prose.
The impact is poetic but the language fits a boy’s perceptions and vocabulary, encompassing his sense of wonder and quiet wisdom:
“I can hear the woodpigeons burbling, the sound as round as pebbles
In a hencoop: “I duck into the dark stink of the shed … close my palm over the smooth, hot, newborn shells.”
Extinguishing flames: “The fire hisses like a nest of snakes.”
About his violent father, “… wishing I hadn’t seen that look on Father’s face which means it’s a drinking day and there’s nothing I can do.”
If I must cast a critical eye, there is just one area in which the book stumbles a bit. This is when some of the biographical material or history of the village is crowded into dialogues or monologues. A glaring example is when Mackintosh, normally laconic when explaining his art to the watchful Thomas, suddenly inundates him with his back-story and professional frustrations. In awkward chunks of dialogue, one hears the author’s voice dictating from a written script.
Here is Mac recounting a conversation he had with his boss Keppie:
“‘I’ve made places for poets,’ I told him, ‘and now I’m being reprimanded for misplacing toilet facilities.’ But Keppie came closer. He was pale. Business was failing off, he told me, the city was struggling, and his job was to please the client. ‘While mine,’ I shouted, I could feel the whole office listening at the door, ‘is to make them gasp and wonder.’ That was when he asked me to go…”
This jarring literary device is used again with the rope-maker, George Allard, endlessly lecturing his apprentice Thomason about the history of Britain. With his captive audience rotating the wheel, Allard walks backwards into the woods releasing the strands of hemp wound around his waist, while reeling out facts and dates, obviously meant for the readers.
Yet this art of making rope, when described by the narrator, sounds like visual melody. There is an especially sublime moment when Thomas is walking backwards into the countryside releasing the taut yarn, and he is greeted by a girl he knows. He wants to but cannot interrupt his work, and the realisation of his true feelings for her comes as he keeps walking away: “They have forgotten me already, I think, as they dip out of sight over the rise of the small hill, but just then Betty leans over and flicks at the rope and I feel ittravel, the touch of her finger, right down until it twangs against my gut.”
This is writing that brings fiction alive. Thus, Thomas is more real to me than the real-life artist Mackintosh. Weaving and braiding strands of facts and fiction, and flicking the rope with her creative magic, Esther Freud sets vibrating in our guts an imagined world. I carry away a line uttered as dialogue by “Mr Mac,” but which was in a lecture Mackintosh delivered in Glasgow:
“Art is the flower. Life is the green leaf
Neeman Sobhan is a poet, fiction writer and columnist. Her debut collection of poems, The Calligraphy of Wet Leaves, was published by Bengal Lights Books in 2015.