Beautiful, observant writing about place; intricate and respectful characterisation, but lacks the dynamic of plot
For the first two-thirds of Esther Freud’s outbreak of first world war, Suffolk coast set novel, I was absolutely content with her fine delicate observations of the natural world, of the world of her twelve year old central character and first person narrator Thomas Maggs, the only surviving son of the local Innkeeper, a man too full of disappointment and of using his own beer as a solution. Tommy is a bit of a dreamer, a quiet observant boy with a twisted foot, fond of drawing, yearning to go to sea, though his disability will preclude that.
The thrust of the book looks at the unchanging world of this shoreline community and the precipitation of war as the start of change. The light draws summer visitors, artists. One such is Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his artist wife, Margaret MacDonald, all the way from Glasgow.
Freud has woven a story of the known biography of a part of Mackintosh’s life – he did spend a year at Walberswick, at the lead-up to and first year of the war,and did get briefly arrested on suspicion of being a spy of behalf of Germany as his constant prowling along the coast, examining birds and the horizon through binoculars was misinterpreted as passing signals to Germany. The local home front was expecting invasion to start along the Suffolk Coast.
Freud examines art, the natural world as an inspiration for art, and the artistic productions and relationship of Mackintosh and MacDonald through the eyes of her sensitive narrator, on the cusp of sexual awakening, longing to escape the life mapped out for him, and with his own desire to go to sea, to travel, to create art and to heal the dysfunctions within his family.
Her evocation of time and place is always beautiful, proceeding slowly and patiently along, but there came a point (following a scene at an auction, following the shooting down of a Zeppellin) where it suddenly felt as if Freud had realised that there ought to be some dramatic plot and drive to the end of the book, and the last 70 pages, not that successfully, in my opinion, particularly the final section, feels like a tacked on wrap.
As the story progressed, from time to time I came away from enjoyment of Freud’s finely crafted wordsmithing, and I found I did not always believe Thomas’s gender (despite his interest in a young Scottish summer visitor and in Margaret MacDonald) nor his class and degree of refinement.
A gentle, lovingly crafted book, more meditative than dramatic. Much is made of a local craft – rope making, and I wished for some of the tension of the twisted skeins of twine to have happened in a turning up of storytelling tension
Mac stops when we come to the top of the marsh and snaps off a twig of hawthorn. He examines its crinkled leaves and the swivel of its thorns and slides it into the pocket of his cape. He stops again when we reach Hoist Wood. There are old trees here, ghost trees I think of them, so long have their trunks been stranded from the sun, but their tops are green where they stretch them, and some leaves grow in shafts of sudden light
If you enjoy closely observed, sometimes elevated writing about the natural world, this will be a deeply enjoyable read (this was my enjoyment of it) but there isn’t the same mastery of the drive of story as there is in the observation of here and now. I did, however like it a lot and recommend it, though not unreservedly
I received this as a copy for review from the Amazon Vine UK programme