The American debut of an enthralling new voice in fiction — a vivid, indelibly told novel that follows four generations of a family against the backdrop of a century of turmoil.
The Undertow traces the lives of the Hastings family, from the eve of the First World War to the present day: William, a young factory worker preparing to join the navy; his son Billy, who cycles into the D-Day landings; his grandson Will, an Oxford professor in the 1960s; and his great-granddaughter, Billie, an artist in contemporary London. Here Jo Baker reveals the Hastings’ legacy of choices made, chances lost, and truths long buried in what is an enthralling story of inheritance, fate, passion, and what it means to truly break free of the past.
Excerpted from The Undertow by Jo Baker. Copyright © 2012 by Jo Baker. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: You drew inspiration from your own family story when writing The Undertow. When did you first learn of this family history and what made you decide to turn it into a novel?
A: I don’t think I would ever have come to write the book at all if it wasn’t for a piece of family history I stumbled on through a chance encounter in Valetta, Malta, where I was on a writers’ residency some years ago. At the time, I was working on my previous book, The Telling.
I used to go to the Barrakka Gardens—a beautiful place on the harbor walls. On one occasion an elderly gentleman struck up a conversation with me. A mine of local information, he was soon pointing out buildings of historical interest, including an old hospital where, he told me, the wounded from Gallipoli had been treated. My great grandfather had served, and died, at Gallipoli—that was all I knew about him. I told the old fellow about this, saying that of course, having died there, my great-grandfather wouldn’t have actually been in Malta. But, he told me, the ships refueled and took on supplies there on their way out. I realized that I was standing where my great grandfather may well have stood, ninety years previously, in radically different circumstances. The sense of connectedness, of time, gave me goose bumps.
When I returned home, I started researching my great-grandfather. There was not much known and there were no photographs, but the more I found out, the more fascinated I became, and the more aware of the starkness of his existence. He had grown up in a slum. No wonder he went to sea at fourteen. When he passed through Malta in 1915, he was on his way to die a very nasty, working-class death, trapped in the boiler room of his ship. I also came upon his post-card collection (which appears in the book), which revealed to me something of him as a person. The postcards, selected by him, preserved by his widow and then his son, showed him to be so alive to the world. He didn’t just go for the tourist shots—he had, for example, amassed a large collection of pictures of the excavations of Pompeii. He had an artist’s or a writer’s alertness to the world, I felt, though he never had the slightest chance of realizing that. I, on the other hand, had had the privilege of an Oxbridge education, and had been brought to Malta simply to write. What lay between us, and between the astonishing differences in our life-chances, was simply ninety years. I had to explore that.
Q: The Undertow follows one family through multiple generations, which you describe as a sort of narrative relay, with each character passing the baton to the next. Which time period was your favorite to write about?
A: Each period had its own pleasures and challenges, but I particularly loved writing the sections set in Battersea in the early part of the century, partly because the streets I’m writing about have disappeared—not just the houses, but the actual layout of the city there, the street-scape. Being close to the docks, the streets were flattened in the Blitz, and then built over after the war. It’s a particular pleasure to reconstruct something that no longer exists—out of old maps, daydreams, and from stomping round the remaining neighborhoods in Battersea.
I also loved writing the Malta sections—both the present day and the World War I section. I enjoyed working out the continuities and differences over time. And, when so much of the novel is set in England, it was wonderful to let rip on Mediterranean color and sunshine!
Q: Did you especially identify with any one character? Or were they all connected for you?
A: I identify with them all; they are all, in different ways, fractured and flawed, but still struggling with what life throws at them. Which is, I think, something everyone can relate to. But I do feel most sympathetic towards Billy, who has the least ability of any of the characters to articulate his emotions.
Q: There are a few links that run throughout all of the narratives—objects that are passed down, the name “William” which each generation shares in some way—and one of them is a sinister figure who comes into the family’s life after WWI. Did you always plan to have a “villain” in the story, or did he develop as you went along?
A: Sully was always there in the Gallipoli section of the story, taunting William, and I always planned for him to return... then he just kept cropping up as I wrote through the later sections. Like a bad penny, as William describes him. I realize now that he represents the dark side of inheritance, the things you don’t want to know about your family. For Will, in particular, he is an unwelcome reminder of where he comes from and everything he’s trying to leave behind.
Q: This novel was originally published in the UK as The Picture Book. What, for you, is the significance of the US title, The Undertow?
A: The US title captures—rather nicely I think—one of the novel’s main themes: the pull of history. History drags characters under, or side-swipes them out of the course they had foreseen for their lives. At times the undertow is literal—drowning, near drowning, fear of drowning—and at times it is more metaphorical—distractions and diversions, failures, unexpected changes in circumstances.
Q: Each generation of the family experiences war in a different way, but either personal experience or the memory of war is an important part of their lives. Was this a theme you set out to explore, or was it just a product of following a family through the 20th century?
A: As I was writing the novel, I thought of it as a story of family and war, and a family at war. Even not experiencing war is an issue in the book—Will is seen somehow to be deficient in not having served. I also wanted to think about individuals’ experience of the current war—the global War on Terror—in relation to that of the earlier World Wars.
Q: Did you have any particular literary inspirations while writing The Undertow?
A: Like most writers I read voraciously and promiscuously, and so it’s almost impossible to know exactly what leaks through and influences my work, and what just left me impressed and satisfied as a reader. As part of my research I made a point of reading the novels of the period, not just the history—for texture and detail. Of course, because this book ranges over the 20th Century, there were a lot of novels to choose from; but I think readers could notice references (or reactions) to the work of E M Forster, Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, and Kingsley Amis, amongst many others.
I don’t know if it was exactly an influence, but I was also going through a full-on literary crush on Cormac McCarthy at the time of writing. His sentences are so lean, so active, and he has this extraordinary ability to convey so much about the emotional state of emotionally-inarticulate people.
Q: What is your writing routine? Do you write at a particular time of day or in a particular place?
A: The Undertow was written mostly at night. I was juggling a full-time job and two small children so sleep was the only thing I could cut back on. I’d wake at 3 am, go downstairs, and work till 7 am when the kids woke up (known in our house as ‘The Sylvia Plath shift’). If it wasn’t for insomnia I would never have been able to complete the novel at all.
Obviously, that kind of schedule isn’t good in the long term; I was able to quit my day job when I sold the book, and can now work at more reasonable times. I write in a coffee-shop in town; first draft is always with a notepad and fountain pen, then redraft onto computer.
Q: Turning to popular culture for a moment, have you watched the TV series Downton Abbey and do you think that fans of the series will find some similarities in the first sections of The Undertow?
A: I think readers will find similarities, but very much from a below-stairs point of view. I’m fascinated by the period Downton Abbey explores—a time of massive historical events and the social change that comes with them. The book’s focus though, is on the working class experience. They don’t have succession to worry about, so much as survival. They start the century with nothing: they have only their lives and their wits to call their own. I think the stakes are higher for them as a result.
Q: What project are you working on now?
A: I’m very excited about my next book; I don’t want to jinx anything, though, so I’m keeping quite quiet about it...
“Gripping. . . . Emotionally powerful. . . . Baker is skilled at evoking not only the distinctive social circumstances of the settings but the essential nature of each character. . . . You can’t walk away from her book.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Jo Baker is a novelist with a gift for intimate and atmospheric storytelling. . . . [She] skillfully delineates the currents of social change and the essential human drama that persists. . . . The result is an agile, keenly observed novel that evokes the minuscule rewards and disappointments of the everyday.”
—The Financial Times
“Engaging . . . . The Hastings family must fend off adversity of all kinds and from every side. Their challenges—so movingly detailed here—provide a profound sense of the whole tumultuous century.” —The Washington Post
“A poignant, emotionally intense read that illuminates the legacies of love and loss for ordinary people.”
“Moving but never sentimental. . . . The Undertow has a quiet, cumulative power; you read it not quite realizing how it’s burrowing under your skin.”
—The Seattle Times
“Intricate, sensitive. . . . What is the legacy of four generations of loss? For Americans without a direct link to the current conflicts overseas or who get their war news from TV and Twitter, the question can seem like a distant concept. . . . However, this tightly crafted English novel, tracing a family from World War I to Iraq, brings it to life.”
—Oprah.com (Book of the Week)
“Some writers let you know you’re in safe hands from the start, and Jo Baker is one of them. . . . This drama-rich saga unfolds as a series of intimate family portraits. . . . There are gripping set-pieces, from childbirth to battlefield, all related in cut-glass prose and embedded with telling period detail.”
“Emotionally charged. . . . Baker’s saga about four generations of the British Hastings family, beginning with a young William sailing off to WWI, explores the effects of war, poverty, dreams, and the difficulties of love.”
“Richly evocative . . . Its fast-flowing style, sparky dialogue and lean narrative hops through decades, taking in wars, deaths, births, hardships and dark family secrets. . . . Well crafted and highly readable, [The Undertow] places Baker at the top end of the list of emerging British literary talent.”
—Time Out London
“Deeply affecting. . . . A sweeping drama with real emotional depth.”
“An exceptional 20th-century saga. . . . A four-generational span of extraordinary history and ordinary lives, eloquent about the unshared interior worlds of individuals even when connected by the closest of bonds. . . . This searchingly observant work captures a huge terrain of personal aspiration against a shifting historical and social background. Impressive.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“The Undertow, so deeply and richly imagined, is one of those books that make you forget to turn off the bedside light. I found myself thinking, just one more page, and then, just one more chapter. If what you love is a larger-than-life story with epic dimensions that pulls you in and won’t let you go, this is your book.”
—Kim Barnes, author of In the Kingdom of Men
1. Why has Jo Baker chosen The Undertow for her title? Where does a literal undertow appear in the novel? What is the metaphoric undertow that exerts a pull on all the main characters?
2. Why does Baker begin the novel with Amelia and William at a cheap movie theater watching a film about treachery, jealousy, and betrayal, but which ends happily: “All troubles are over, all discord is resolved: no one loves the wrong person or wants something they can never have, or has to face something they simply cannot face” (p. 5). How does this opening scene set up some of the themes that will recur throughout the book?
3. What is the appeal of following a single family through four generations? In what ways are William, Billy, Will, and Billie remarkably alike? What common threads run throughout the generations? In what ways are they quite different from one another?
4. The desire to escape is a major theme of The Undertow. In what ways do William, Billy, Will, and Billie all attempt to escape? Why do they feel trapped? What different methods do they use to get free?
5. In what ways are history and family history deeply intertwined in The Undertow? How does the history that one generation lives through affect the next generation?
6. When William wanders into a cathedral on Malta in 1915, he sees Caravaggio’s painting The Beheading of St. John the Baptist and thinks: “This is not a holy picture. . . . This is not a holy place. There’s too much dirt and dark and blood: this is all too human . . . there’s no God, no guidance, no forgiveness here” (p. 21). Nearly ninety years later, Billie views the very same painting. Compare her response, on pp. 311–12, to her great-grandfather’s. How does the painting influence Billie’s own sense of artistic purpose?
7. Why would Billie want to paint “what people don’t look at . . . to paint it and put it in a frame and make it something that people really look at. Deliberately. That they linger over” (p 321)?
8. When Will worries that Billie’s painting of Matthew—which appears in a group of her paintings of wounded soldiers—is tempting fate, Billie says: “I think, whatever it is, by not looking at it, not saying it, not admitting it to yourself, that’s the temptation, that’s the danger. You’ve got to look fate right in the eye. You’ve got to stare it down” (p. 327). Is Billie right about this? In what ways does she embody a new openness that none of her ancestors could achieve?
9. What are the major secrets that run throughout the novel? What are their consequences?
10. How does Billy react to his son Will’s disability? Why does he feel his killing the boy in Normandy was the “down payment” (p. 175) for a second chance at having a healthy son?
11. In what ways does war pervade The Undertow? How does it affect each of the main characters? In what ways does the novel show the emotional costs of war across generations, for both men and women?
12. What role does Sully—William’s shipmate who survived the sinking of the Goliath—play in the novel? Is there a larger significance in his menacing reappearances?
13. When Amelia’s boss, Mr. Jack, mentions the rumor of a new front opening in France, he tells her: “But keep it to yourself, eh?. . . Keep mum.” Amelia thinks: “Motherhood and silence: why the same word?” (p. 149). What is the connection between motherhood and silence, especially for women of Amelia’s generation?
14. In what ways does The Undertow offer a very personal history of the twentieth century? Discuss the emotional evolution that occurs from William in 1914, through Billy and Will, to Billie in 2005?
15. Why has Jo Baker chosen to end the novel with a scene of lyrical tenderness, as Billie thinks of the future and the present: “There will be illness, and there will be death, and through it all there will be love. But for now, the blackbird still sings outside the window. Now, there is just the kiss, and the taste of coffee, and the clear strong knowledge that this, however long or brief, is happiness” (p. 341)? Why would Billie locate happiness in such a simple, ordinary moment? In what ways does this passage echo Billy’s philosophy of not looking further than the next ten yards?