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Book Review: The Picture Book by Jo Baker

The Picture Book follows four generations of a British family and spans close to one hundred years. We find William Hastings in 1915, on board a navy ship in the Mediterranean during the First World War. The story ends in 2004 with William’s great-granddaughter, Billie Hastings, an artist trying to find meaning in her life through connections with veterans from the Gulf War. These wars – as well as the Second World War – play important roles in the development of the four main characters and how they live in their worlds, often traumatised by events or affected by their previous generation’s dysfunctions. “The imagined and the real shift and slide across each other like layers of tracing paper and can’t be made to fit together.”

The book is about life’s struggles – not so much about how we overcome them, but more about how we live with them. It’s about common folk trying to survive, their actions unknowingly shaping their and their children’s futures forever. “He is alright. He is fine. You cannot wrap him up in cotton-wool.” In this regard, there are some lovely commonplace settings (the feeling of riding a bicycle, shovelling coal) juxtaposed against the horrific (landing at Normandy with bullets flying, a sexual assault). It’s about life – the ordinary and the extra-ordinary.

Weaving through these life stories is an album owned by William’s wife Amelia – a collection of postcards from the places he visited during his short navy career. And when Billie finally holds her great-grandmother’s picture book in her hands, she thinks, “There are things you can’t say, of course there are. Things you wouldn’t even consider saying. About fear, and its deferral. About what you’d do to stop yourself from looking too far ahead. She feels choked with it. With what must have been felt, and may have been done, and could not be said.”

Jo Baker has what all talented writers have – the practised skill of observing others. She portrays both powerful emotions and physicality, yet with perfect efficiency. If you like historical, family sagas, or WWI and WWII fiction, then you will like The Picture Book.

Just like the postcards in Amelia’s picture book, the four main characters become snapshots of a family evolving, struggling, surviving throughout the twentieth century, and I think best summed up in this final quote: “You have to look fate in the eye. You have to stare it down.”


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