"FArTHER" is a beautiful, mesmerising book with an aching story. It won the Kate Greenaway medal last year for its inventive, dreamlike illustrations.
Baker-Smith digitally creates worlds of reach-out-and-touch quality; they are magical, dimensional and stirring. The story itself is timeless, we're not sure when it's set but it doesn't really matter. It's haunted by ancient ideals, renaissance invention and the spectre of warfare. It's a rewiring of Daedalus and Icarus.
The boy of the story is bewildered by his father's fascination with flight. It's his father's obsession to reach further but it means that he is removed from his son, farther away from him even though he is always nearby. He slaves away like a Wright brother, building beautiful but flawed flying contraptions. Occasionally he remembers his son and they have special days, lovely adventures, but they end all too soon when the obsession returns. The boy seems confused by this and aches for his father's company and attention.
Before achieving his dream, the boy's father is called away to war. He leaves their clifftop home, passing along a lane of poppies, dressed in a WWI era uniform. The father never returns but instead he and his dream haunt the boy. When the boy grows to young manhood he takes on his father's ventures and he succeeds, soaring high above their home. It's not clear whether he does this as a homage to his father or whether he is equally bewitched by the challenge. He then becomes a father himself and wonders what will ensnare his son.
Baker-Smith's art manages to be both detailed and panoramic in the same breath. The blend of textures and colours is powerful and evocative, especially so when the weather is showcased and pathetic fallacy is at play. The characters are gleamingly moon-faced, godlike creatures and the inventions are rendered with such dexterity and realism that you want to grasp them. The house and cliff top setting are cinematic. I loved the detail-laden spreads, especially when the teenaged boy undertakes the mission; while text simply reads "I took up the old wings, made a few simple adjustments" in the image we see the contrast in characters so clearly. This is a much more organised workbench, the boy is a different man than his father though he pursues the same dream. Its subtle and all the stronger for its subtly.
Ultimately, this is a father and son story (the mother and wife only appear occasionally). It's about how preoccupation pulls us out of moments, out of relationships. It's an examination of how fathers and sons relate to each other, and perhaps is of the opinion that sons only understand their fathers when they themselves have sons. It is about frustrated dreams, the loss of and grieving for a loved one, the torturous emotions of being a parent's child and being a child's parent.
So, while the artwork is captivating and glorious with ready appeal for tiny, inquisitive eyes, I think the story is more for the adult reader - but that's the hallmark of a damn good picture book, it works on different levels.
Thank for reading,