The novel is set in a little fishing village on the Suffolk coast, at Walberswick - an area I know only very slightly. It centres on the growing friendship between the young son of the village publican, Thomas Maggs, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret, who are renting a house in the village.
It is set at the beginning of the First World War although, in such a remote coastal community whose ways of life appear not to have changed much for centuries, you could be forgiven for thinking it set much earlier than 1914. The advent of the war and all that involves comes as a huge shock to the community, when modern warfare arrives, bringing cars, airships, and planes into their world. Thomas, when imagining the warship HMS Formidable, had drawn a wooden ship with masts and sails. He is shocked to discover it a modern battleship. Regiments of soldiers are billeted in the village pub. Thomas loses his job with Mr Allard the rope maker when he devises a more modern method of rope-making. Their world is changing fast.
Zeppelin bombing raids attack the coastal villages and arouse the suspicion of the villagers, who begin to point accusatory fingers at the Mackintoshes, believing them to be spies or at least German sympathisers.
What begins as a quiet thoughtful novel about coming of age, friendship, and a shared love of art, grows slowly into something with an underlying menace. The effects of the wartime restrictions, and the presence of the soldiers all lead to tensions in the community.
What I loved about the novel particularly was the closeness between the Mackintoshes and their willingness to allow Thomas into their lives, to share their interests and love of art. They encouraged him to explore his interests which were otherwise being suppressed. The descriptions of CRM's finely detailed botanical drawings were delightful. The calmness of their sketches lay in direct contrast to the reports of the battles and the bombing raids.
If I had to have a criticism, and really it is only a very small one, I thought the final part wound Thomas's story up rather too quickly. I wanted more detail of his adult life. What did he do with his life? The details are a little sketchy. That said, though, it was a delightful novel, a pleasure to read and another author to add to my favourites list.