Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Picture Book - Jo Baker

Malta, 1915. William Hastings is on shore leave from HMS Goliath where he serves as a stoker, powering the ship's engines. He's always been faithful to his wife but this time, however, he's finding the wine and women hard to resist:
'He lifts his head and watches the whore. The pretty one. The one Sully had. The way she sits, elbow on the counter, cigarette lolling from her hand. She turns, catches someone's eyes. William glances along her eyeline, to see who she's looking at. It's one of the Scots. A young lad: he stares back at her slack-jawed, hungry; hands in his pockets. There's a rash of spots across his chin. The lad's pasty fingers will be grubbing around in his pockets for money; in a minute he'll be counting out the coins on his palm. William looks back to the woman. There are deep lines down from her nose towards the corners of her lips, and they deepen as she smiles.
 He wants her. He can't help wanting her.
But he can leave. Buy a postcard. See the city. Write.
She tilts her head. Runs a finger down one edge of her wrap, where it lies over the curve of her collarbones and dips down between her breasts. He tries to think of Amelia, how he'd imagined her before they were married, when she was the girl he was waiting for. But he just recalls the red lines pinched into her skin by stays. The way she turns her head away.
There's a grain of guilt; a gritty nub of it. That's all. He stubs out his cigarette.'   

The Picture Book tells the story of four generations of a family, from the WW1 Navy man of the opening chapters to his son Billy on the Normandy landing beaches. The story moves on to Billy's son, a university lecturer, before reaching the modern day and the academic's daughter, another Billie. Each generation shares the same name, and each one is shaped in some way by those who have gone before.

Rather than tracing every stage of the family history, Baker zooms in on defining moments in the life of each generation, their decisions and indecisions and their chance encounters. For the first William it is the visit to the prostitute and an unsent postcard. For his son it is riding a bicycle in his first job as a delivery boy.

The book is at its best, I think, in its description of the relationships between the family members - the bond between  the WW2 veteran and his artistic granddaughter, the passing closeness of step brother and sister during a hasty meeting over coffee. Baker has a fine eye for the everyday details that bring her scenes to life.

The Picture Book is Baker's fourth novel and is published by Portobello.


  1. I've seen this around and wondered about it, so am glad to hear your thoughts. It sounds interesting, but sort of episodic, and sometimes that works for me and sometimes not. Did you feel enough pull of a plot to keep you wanting to read on?

    1. That's an interesting question, Litlove. I sometimes have a similar problem with episodic novels.

      In this case, the moves between generations did require a few pages of readjustment, but I think the overall family narrative carried me through. It's fair to say, however, that I found some of the characters more convincing and engaging than others.

      There was one frustrating gap in the narrative too - an incident involving the cyclist Billy in Paris - that was alluded to, but never described.

  2. I've not come across this author before. From what you say this sounds like something Penelope Lively might have written. Is there a similarity in the writing itself because if there is it may well be a book for me.

    1. I've only read one Lively novel - 'How it all began' - so I'm not sure I'm too well qualified to comment. It's not a comparison that would have occurred to me, but I can see that there are some similarities.

      I think that Lively is more self-assured as a writer. I felt that Baker was a little self conscious in her prose at times. Having said that, her eye for detail is quite impressive.


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