The Picture Book
‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ has a considerable following on TV as well-known people delve into family history. Author Jo Baker knows that her great-grandfather was killed at Gallipoli in 1915. She has a scrapbook of postcards he sent to his wife, the last being the Grand Harbour, Malta. What a wonderful starting point for a novelist! In The Picture Book we meet in snapshot four generations of the Hastings family: factory lad William becomes a stoker on HMS Goliath, torpedoed by the Turks; his son, Billy, is a champion cyclist in the 1930s and survives D-Day in 1944; crippled Will, a 1960s Oxford academic; and his daughter, Billie, an artist who takes up a residency in Malta.
The chapters are headed with place and date, sometimes even time (7.07p.m.); minutes can mean the difference between life and death, a decision taken, a chance lost. At first, I found the episodic narrative disconcerting; William’s last hours on Goliath were so affecting and vivid I couldn’t stop thinking about them and wanted to stay with that storyline, instead of the next chapter, which was ten years later, with young Billy learning to ride the grocer’s delivery bike. However, the author is so good at evoking atmosphere, in sensuous detail, that I was quickly drawn in alongside new characters. Sully, William’s surviving shipmate, haunts the lives of Billy, his mother, and, unknowingly, Will. When Billie goes to Malta in 2004, the story comes full circle. Only after her return does she discover the scrapbook of postcards from her great-grandfather. The narrative flattened at that point but perked up again with a moving ending on 7/7 the following year.
A lovely book, an intimate portrait of a family, social change, attitudes to war; and the author one to look out for.