Esther Freud’s eighth novel is set on the Suffolk coast, in a world that’s about to change. It’s 1914, the start of the First World War, and the artists and holidaymakers of a typical summer are replaced by blackouts, the dull boom of the guns in Flanders, Zeppelin raids, and soldiers arriving and villagers leaving to sign up, acutely aware that their coastline is the nearest landing point for a German invasion. Walking through this familiar landscape of shingle beaches, marshy flats and dunes is the narrator, a lonely, lovely, mysterious boy, who limps along the shore gazing out to sea.
Thomas Maggs is not quite 14, and he’s “the youngest son of William and Mary Maggs and the only surviving son” – his dead brothers are buried in the graveyard. Thomas shares a house with an abusive drunk for a father, a loving mother, and his sister Ann, who hopes to marry a sailor; his eldest sibling Mary is away, working in the Big House. Tom’s dreams are cast seaward, away from the constrictions of his life and the fists of his father, sketching pictures of boats into the margins of his schoolwork, imagining himself far away.
His life begins to change with the arrival of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Suffering from nervous exhaustion, recovering from pneumonia and stymied in his career, the architect heads to the coast to recuperate with his artist wife, Mary Macdonald. Tom secretly watches Mac, dressed “for all the world like a detective” in a black cape and a felted wool hat stalking along the river bank, puffing on a pipe, and letting the water wash over his boots.
The three strike up a friendship, Mac rediscovering his love of nature as he carefully paints wild flowers, Tom learning how to “see” the way an artist does as a stem of larkspur is re-imagined: “He uses blue, the crushed blue of canvas, and yellow and red for spots and creases that I don’t see are there, overlapping each other and ballooning into buds, so that they seem to be growing right there before us, the stalks silvery, the leaves grey.”
It’s a haunting, haunted story, full of ghosts and drownings, disappointments and sadness, but there’s a quality of luminous wonder too, captured in Freud’s delicate, lyrical prose and the tenderness and warmth of her depictions of the various characters that make up village life. But it is Thomas, mysterious Thomas, and brusque, beleaguered Mac, who glow in this compelling story of art, friendship and war.Reuse content