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  • Written by Jo Baker
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On Sale: May 15, 2012
Pages: 384 | ISBN: 978-0-307-95836-5
Published by : Knopf Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

The Electric Theatre, York Road, Battersea, London August 14, 1914

THE LIGHTS GO OUT. The cheap seats erupt in shrieks and roars, as though the dark has changed everyone into wild animals and birds. It’s hot. The stench is terrible. Amelia fumbles for William’s hand.

A mechanical whir and clatter starts up behind her. She twists round to look over her shoulder. All she can see is a saturating flood of light, which makes her blink, and then the light begins to flip and flicker.

"It’s starting,” William says.
 
Amelia turns back in her seat and cranes to look between the heads in front, through the twists of tobacco smoke.
 
A man snaps into existence. The audience cheers. He bows, blows kisses. He’s framed by rich, draped curtains, and wears an elegant morning suit. He is very handsome. He is soft shades of porcelain and charcoal, silky-grey.
 
"That’s Max,” William says. “Max Linder.”
 
Amelia’s hand squeezes William’s. “What’s the story?”
 
"He’s on stage,” William says. “Taking a curtain call.”
 
The miracle of it. A gentleman like that, bowing to them; to the audience crammed there, two kids to a seat, all of them jabbering away as if this was nothing. The place smelling of old clothes and boots and sweat and bad teeth and disease.
 
“What do you think?” William asks.
 
She just shakes her head, smiles.
 
The image changes: she sees a husband and wife now, talking. There’s a title card: the lady wants to meet Max; can the husband send a note? The kids in the cheap seats gabble out the words, translating or just reading out loud for their parents: a tangle of English, Yiddish, Italian. It’s like bedlam in the theatre, but on the screen everything is beautiful: the husband is in evening dress, and the lady’s wrap is just the loveliest thing Amelia’s ever seen, the silky drape of it. It would feel so good on the skin. But the husband is jealous. You can tell that by his eyebrows, his fists.
 
The man in front of her leans to talk to his neighbour, and she moves closer to William, shoulder against his shoulder, to peer round the obstacle.
 
In the dark, William draws her hand into his lap, unbuttons her glove and peels it off. She repossesses the empty glove, smoothes it flat on her lap. He twists the narrow wedding ring around her finger, then strokes her palm with his thumb, the calloused skin grazing and snagging on her hot skin. It’s distracting, but she doesn’t pull her hand away. Tonight he is allowed.
 
She glances round at him, at his angular profile. His eyes are on the distance, watching the screen; they catch the flickering light and flash green. Then he laughs, creases fanning, and she looks at the screen to see what made him laugh. The maid lays out a china coffee set, and Max is charming, and the husband seethes, and, while the wife and Max are turned away to admire a painting, the husband pours a dose of salts into Max’s coffee!
 
The audience roars. Amelia claps her gloved hand over her mouth.
 
The husband dodges over to join his wife and Max, and, when all their backs are turned, the maid, who is also beautifully dressed in hobble skirt and high heels, goes to take away the tray. Seeing the coffee is undrunk, she sets it down again, but has, by chance, turned the tray around, so that the tainted cup is set before the husband’s seat. The audience roars again. Amelia’s hand drops away from her face. And then, for good measure, the husband dodges round and pours another dose into what he thinks is Max’s cup, but it’s the wife’s. They’re all going to cop for it now!
 
“Oh my goodness!”
 
On screen, the three of them sit down at the coffee table, but then there’s an exchange of courtesies, of sugar lumps and cream that just goes on and on and you can’t bear it because you know any moment they’re going to drink, but it keeps on not happening, and not happening until the husband, dainty for his bulk, smug in the expectation of Max’s humiliation, lifts his china cup and sups long on his coffee. He doesn’t know what’s coming! A moment later, he grips his stomach and rushes for the door. Max and the wife look on, bemused. Then Max drinks, and grimaces, and has to rush out too! And then the wife! They return, with accusations, and then there’s outrage, confusion, revelation, and then a caption: the wife isn’t in love with Max—she just wants to be in one of his films!
 
A wave of laughter, and the kids are gabbling again, and there’s a second wash of laughter afterwards.
 
On screen, everyone shakes hands, kisses cheeks; they resolve to make the film together. 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.
 
The reel ends with a clatter, empty white panels flipping up and away. The lights come up and Amelia blinks, staring down the length of the room towards a blank white screen, between the greasy heads in front. The heavy curtains are kept pulled tight, and the electric light glares uncomfortably, and the man in a huckster’s suit, who took the money at the door, walks the length of the cheap seats, spraying the crowds with scent. That she is here, in a place like this, where the audience has to be perfumed—disinfected?—halfway through the show, is testament to her feeling, her resolve. Amelia gets a whiff of the spray—sweet violets but with a sharp tang of ammonia. It makes the kids laugh and jostle, and even the adults down in the cheap seats don’t protest or really seem to recognise the shame of it: one woman raises her face towards the spray, eyes closed as if in enjoyment. But she and William are all right where they are, up in the sixpenny seats. No-one will spray them here.

The lights flick out again, and the clattering wheel of the bio scope starts up, and the huckster slips out of the way, and the scene is of the sea, a fleet of proud grey battleships nosing across an expanse of iron-grey waves.
 
“Can you see your ship?” She peers in hard at the murky grey-on-grey. “Is the Goliath there?”
 
He peers. “Those are the new ones. Goliath’s getting on a bit.”
 
Then there’s a title card: The Gallant Navy Boys. And there’s a clutch of them on deck, three lads in their rig, joking and laughing, eyes bright white against dark weathered skin. She feels again for William’s hand, and squeezes it, and feels a flush of pride. And then from somewhere towards the front, a young woman’s voice breaks out into song.
 
Tis the Navy, the Fighting Navy,
That will keep them in their place

And other voices join her, and Amelia tries, but the words come out thin and husky.

For they know they have to face
The gallant little lads in Navy Blue.

 
She reaches up to touch the wet away from her eyes.
 
“All right?” William asks.

She nods. “I know you have to,” she says. And that’s the only thing that makes it bearable at all.
 
When the lights go up at the end, he tugs on her hand, and they’re on their feet ahead of the crowds, and they slip past the projectionist who is crouched and fiddling with his machine, and they’re out through the front doors and into the busy evening of York Road, and he’s spinning her round on the pavement like a child, whirling through the warm thick summer air, and making her protest and laugh.
 
Then he stops her, and holds her waist. She’s smiling dizzily.
 
“Thank you for coming,” he says.
 
She inclines her giddy head.
 
“I know it’s not really your cup of tea.”
 
She straightens her hat, remembers the handsome Max, bowing to the stinking, roaring, shrieking crowd. “If it wasn’t for that spray—”
 
He grins, turns her lightly, side to side, at the waist.
 
“But just think: they can film anything,” he says, “and show it anywhere. It’s amazing. Anything. Japan. America. The whole world—”
 
“The whole world in a little room.”
 
He stills her, lets his hands fall from her. “I suppose so.”
 
She takes his arm, and they walk. William tucks her arm in tight to his side. He doesn’t speak. She wonders if she’s offended him, but can’t work out quite how. An omnibus passes by, the horses dragging along tiredly, lamps glowing, making her realise that the light is fading.
 
“Do you want to go somewhere else?” she asks.
 
He clicks his tongue, shakes his head.
 
And that’s true enough. There’s nowhere else to go. Too late for the park; music halls and pubs are vulgar. So, by rights, is the bioscope, though she’s let that pass for once. And it’s not like you can just go for a stroll along the riverbank; it’s not that kind of river in this part of town.
 
“He might be in bed by now,” she says.
 
“You never know.”
 
They are nearly at the corner of Plough Road; nearly home. They turn down the road, and it’s quiet now. For a moment they are alone, and a sparrow chitters along the length of a back wall, and you can hear the clattering of cabs and drays down the York Road behind them. William stops and pulls Amelia to him, holds her, making the edge of her corset dig into her flesh, so that when she undresses later there are red marks on her skin. She catches her breath, doesn’t protest: she wants him to be happy.
 
He dips his face into her neck, and almost lifts her off the ground, and says, “Oh my sweetheart, Oh my girl.”

She could have had anyone, her mother always said. Edwin Cheeseman, from the grocer’s. Lionel Travis, who’s doing so well at Price’s. Mr. Bateman, a senior clerk in the city, who’d been casting eyes at her ever since she was fifteen. A whole host of good, sound, solid men who’d’ve been only too happy to have her as their wife. So why on God’s good earth did it have to be him, William Hastings, a scruff from the wrong end of Battersea with little to recommend him but a job on the factory floor at Price’s and a bold manner, who clearly thinks he’s better than he is? And Amelia would dismiss her mother’s objections, dismiss the whole world and all the sound solid men in it with a toss of her head, and turn back to the window, to look out for him, so that she could see him from the moment he turned down Edna Street. Watch him walk all the way to her front door.
 
The old man’s clinking and clattering in the kitchen; William leads her instead into the cool dimness of the front parlour, propels her gently towards the seats by the window.
 
“Sit down.”
 
She sits. The summer sky is a deep blue strip above the houses opposite; little light reaches into the narrow street. She watches as William goes over to the cabinet and lifts a package from the top. He brings it over to her, puts it in her hands. It is neatly wrapped in the stationer’s striped paper, tied with creamy soft cotton tape. There is substance here, heft. She feels an unaccountable prickle of apprehension. She has to fight an urge to hand it straight back to him.

"Open it.”
 
He sits down on the arm of the chair. His arm pressed against her shoulder. She teases the knot undone, conscious of the brush of her sleeve against his thigh. The paper peels apart.
 
The book’s cover is a deep inky blue. A flowered plant twines up the left side, curling round the black embossed word Album. She runs her fingers over the skin-cool board, tracing the lines and shapes, the dents and ridges of its patterning. She doesn’t know what to make of it.
 
“It’s beautiful,” she says.
 
He shifts eagerly on the arm of her chair, leans in to lift the cover. Inside, the page is cut with little angled slips.
 
“It’s for postcards,” he says.

He touches the four cuts where you would slide in the corners of the cards. He lifts the page, turns it, shows her the spread of two pages, blank too, the whole book of it waiting to be filled.
 
“Wherever I go,” he says, “every country, every city; I’ll buy postcards, and send them to you. So that you can see the world, see everything I see.”
 
She runs her hands over the cool paper, feeling the snag of the corner cuts. She smiles up to him.
 
“Like a picture book,” she says. “Lovely. Yes.”
 
The sheets feel damp on her skin. She can see, in the narrow strip of evening sky, a single bright star. It is still not quite dark. The room is humid, hot. She can hear her father-in-law in the next room as he moves around, getting ready for bed. The chink of his collar studs on the washstand, the sucked-in breath as he undoes his belt. The walls are thin. Everything about the house is thin: the rooms, the corridors, the curtains and the floorboards and the brick and mortar and the lath and plaster. Everything is permeable: damp seeps in, and smoke oozes out of the chimney, and the fogs links in from the street and leaves oily dirt on the windowsills. Whenever a door is opened or closed, a step climbed, a curtain drawn, whenever someone sits down, stands up, coughs, the shift is felt throughout the house, by everyone.

She lies still as she can, and breathes, “Hush, love, please.”
 
He grunts in reply, too occupied in himself, in making the springs jangle, making the bed frame creak and the bedhead tap the wall. His body slithers on hers in a film of sweat. She hears the old man step out of his trousers and the huff as he bends down to pick them up. She can feel the neighbours in the rooms either side, can almost hear them breathe. She misses Edna Street, she often does. Things were more solid there.
 
William is done. He presses his face into her neck, and kisses her. It’s ticklish. After a moment, he pushes off her, and gets up and pulls on his shirt and goes to the window and lights up a cigarette, and pulls the sash up high. He sits on the windowsill, holding the cigarette outside, out of courtesy.

She tugs the sheet up to her shoulders and watches him, the soft creases of his shirt, the lean muscle of his naked legs. The way he leans down to the gap to blow the smoke out into the night. At moments like this, he seems so foreign to her, almost unknowable. Like a fox met on the turn of a lane—encountered for a moment, and then gone.
 
He looks round at her. Grins. She swallows down the fear, and smiles back.
 
HMS Goliath, Grand Harbour, Malta April 14, 1915
 
The post comes in as William is scrubbing up after the forenoon watch. He’s bone tired, his back burning, his palms raw, and what he really should do is eat something, slump into his hammock, read her letter, sleep. But he has shovelled coal and slept and eaten, turn and turn about, for days, and now there is a whole new island out there. A whole new country. He has dug his way here through mountains of coal.

As he climbs up from the mess, daylight dazzles him; he crosses the deck half blinded, stunned by sun and noise. Coal thunders into the hold, crates swing, ropes creak under the strain, gulls wheel and cry. He reaches the far rail and he leans there, and looks down and down the curving flank of the ship into the giddy depths, coloured flares swimming across his vision, and he breathes in the unfamiliar air, the smell of harbour water, coal, drains, bread and oranges, deal, the dusty smell of hemp. He sucks it in.
 
Jo Baker|Author Q&A

About Jo Baker

Jo Baker - The Undertow

Photo © Michael Lionstar

Jo Baker was born in Lancashire, England, and educated at Oxford University and Queen’s University Belfast. She is the author of the novels The Under­tow, Offcomer, The Mermaid’s Child, and The Telling. She lives in Lancaster.

Author Q&A

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...

Praise

Praise

“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.” 
Marie Claire

“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.”
The Independent 

“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.”
Publishers Weekly

“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.”
Daily Mail 

“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

Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enliven your group’s discussion of Jo Baker’s American debut, The Undertow, an emotionally complex novel chronicling the lives of the Hastings family through four tumultuous generations.

About the Guide

Jo Baker’s sweeping, hugely ambitious new novel, The Undertow, spans nearly a century in the life of one family, the Hastings, from the outbreak of World War I in 1914 to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2005. Indeed, war is a constant throughout the novel, shaping the lives of each of its main characters, as world history impinges on personal history in complex and myriad ways.

The book begins as young William Hastings prepares to set off to war. He gives his wife Amelia a photo album and promises to send postcards from every port of call. He keeps his promise but finds himself irresistibly drawn toward the wider world he’s just gotten a taste of. He can’t imagine returning to his grinding, gray factory job after the war is over. In Malta, he talks of jumping ship and declares: “I can’t go back. . . . There’s so much more to see. It’s beautiful” (p. 33). This wish to escape—a wish that in William’s case ends in a horrific entrapment—will run throughout the book, as each of William’s descendants is overtaken by similar feelings, though they express them, and act on them, in quite different ways.

William’s son Billy becomes a champion bicycle racer, escaping from hunger and poverty into the sheer animal joy of biking. “The world is new today. . . . He has a bike. He has speed. He can go anywhere” (p. 55). Starting as delivery boy, he eventually achieves stardom as a bike racer. But he fails to make the Olympic team, and when World War II breaks out, he finds himself racing onto the beach at Normandy. His own son Will is born with a congenital disease, leaving him with a permanent limp and a strained relationship with his father. As a young boy Will, too, mounts a daring escape to avoid an experimental operation to “pin” his hip. He overcomes his disability, attends Oxford, and becomes a college professor, but cannot remain faithful to his wife, Madeline. Will’s daughter, Billie, so distressed by her parents looming divorce, briefly runs away from home, taking a train to her grandparents in London and thus completing her own version of the ritual of escape each generation of the Hastings seems compelled to attempt.

But the desire to escape is not the only thread that runs through the Hastings family history. Secrets, infidelities, great loves and great losses recur as well. Sully, William’s treacherous shipmate who survives the war, makes several menacing, ghostly reappearances—like a repressed thought that will not stay away. But though they all share the same name, and resemble each other, as Billie says to her father, “like Russian dolls,” they are also markedly different.

Baker captures not only the personal changes from one generation to the next, but also the evolution of the zeitgeist—the growing urge toward greater openness and self-awareness, which culminates in Billie, a painter who wants to make people look at what they do not want to see. In a fitting ending to a remarkable book, she tells her father: “You’ve got to look fate right in the eye. You’ve got to stare it down” (p. 327). The desire to escape that runs throughout the novel is beautifully resolved, and overcome, in Billie’s defiant, anti-escapist aesthetic.

About the Author

Jo Baker was born in Lancashire and educated at Oxford University and Queen’s University Belfast. The Undertow is her first publication in the United States. She is the author of three previous novels published in the United Kingdom: Offcomer, The Mermaid’s Child, and The Telling. She lives in Lancaster.

Discussion Guides

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?

Suggested Readings

John Dos Passos, Three Soldiers; Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex; James Jones, The Thin Red Line; Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory; Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms; Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore; Zadie Smith, White Teeth; Evelyn Waugh, Sword of Honour.
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Jo Baker - The Undertow

Photo © Michael Lionstar

7/19/2014

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