What a book. Jo Baker's previous novel, "The Telling", is high in my all-time favourites, so I was eager to read this new one and I was not disappointed.
The epigraph quotation from Ecclesiastes: "One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh. All the rivers run on to the sea, and yet the sea is not full" flows through this story of a father, his son, his grandson and his great-grand-daughter (William, Billy, Will and Billie respectively - don't panic, it's not as confusing as you'd expect!)
In an arc from 1914 to 2005 and beyond, the chronological order appears deceptively simple. But threads are subtly woven back, forth, and crosswise, and we frequently grasp the truth of people and events in an intriguingly non-linear way. The four main characters and those they live amongst (to call them lesser characters would be a misnomer as they too are drawn with deftness and compassion) are seen at depth, through their own inner thoughts, and through short scenes, often achingly beautifully observed, of their lives. Jo Baker's vision is unsentimental, affectionate and humane. There is no idealisation: we catch the darkness and light within each character. The sense of menace around one character, the aptly-named Sully, is all the more acute for being understated. Introducing three of the main protagonists from their childhoods, gives extra clout to our involvement with them - the author "does" children in a way which tugs at the gut without ever lapsing into over-kill. A particularly painful family pattern is played out one day when Billy (the married son) and his young family go on a sea-side trip - it had me wincing. The prose itself never falters, often soars, and is a source of delight - especially in an almost poetic ability to give a whole picture in one sentence: "little Billie Hastings, with her belly like a boiled egg and her narrow little shoulders".
We don't so much move through the twentieth century, more it moves through each of these people - both the wars and the peace. And it really does move. Quite how the author manages to so richly distil a character, a life, a world-changing event, without risk of floundering in a bog of unnecessary information, I'm not sure - but she does.
As we move through each generation, our vantage points shifts and we see characters we once inhabited, but now from the outside, and with the gift of hindsight - like pictures. This creates an almost cinematic feeling of both the space and the connectedness between human beings, and also of the unstoppable movement of time.
Throughout "The Picture Book" Jo Baker is the all-seeing narrator in the truest sense: she knows the whole story in the fibres of her being and gives us, elegantly and movingly, what we need to piece it together for ourselves. These characters and this story, for being so intensely personal, speak to us of our own family histories, and our place in the bigger picture.
And the final paragraph is one to die for.