Early in the twentieth century Thomas Maggs grew up in the Blue Anchor public house on the coast of Suffolk. When his parents took on the lease they had six children in infancy, only two young daughters, Mary and Ann survived, and they hoped that starting a new life would bring them luck, and a son who survived.
Thomas was born with a twisted leg but he was strong; he did survive.
By 1914 Mary had gone into service, Ann was very nearly grown up, and Thomas was thirteen. Life at home was not easy; his father drank heavily; his mother was overworked, and so Thomas escaped whenever he could. After school her worked for the local rope maker in order to earn a few pennies. And he gazed across the country, towards the sea, watching the fisherman, looking at the girls who came to gut and pack the herrings that those fisherman caught, and dreaming of going to sea.
Esther Freud sets the scene beautifully; capturing the country and the community at the very edge of the land; capturing a way of life that had remained the same for generations, and that moved slowly with the seasons; capturing a world that was about to be changed for ever by the Great War.
He prose is simple, clear, and so very, very evocative.
As soon as the scene is set she gives Thomas his voice, because this is his story. She’s very good at child narrators, and that voice rings true.
I was quick to realise that this was a book to read slowly, because each and every short chapter painted a picture that I had to absorb. It was very easy to read, very easy to linger.
When Mr and Mrs Mac came to settle in the area the locals gossiped. Who was this man who spent hours out in the country and gazing out to sea, before setting up his easel to paint landscapes and flowers?
He was Charles Rennie Macintosh.
Thomas was fascinated by the newcomers and they warmed to him, encouraging his own artistic aspirations.
Meanwhile, young men were being billeted in the village on their way to the war, and when news arrived of the slaughter of a local regiment the villagers began to realize how terrible the consequences of that was would be.
There were repercussions for Thomas’s family.
And there were repercussions for his friend, who was an outsider, who looked out to see towards Germany, who had links with Germany and received a letter addressed to ‘Herr Macintosh’ ….
Esther Freud too a real incident from the artist’s life and brought it together with a boy’s coming of age to wonderful effect.
Thomas maybe sees and understands a little too much, but she gets away with it, because her story is so quietly compelling. I was captivated.
The vivid descriptions of the country and the coastline are captivating; the community lives and breathes, and the dialogue, the actions, the reactions, are utterly believable; and the way the war encroached on lives was portrayed beautifully and movingly.
I loved watching Thomas watching the artists; that was so very well observed.
The different strands of the story were balanced beautifully, and my only disappointment was with a little unevenness in the pace and a little predictability in certain places.
So I don’t think this is quite Esther Freud’s masterpiece, but it is definitely a step towards it. Her eighth novel is her best to date, and a very, very good book.
Its images are still swirling in my head ….