Excerpt from The Undertow by Jo Baker, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Undertow

A Novel

By Jo Baker

The Undertow
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  • Hardcover: May 2012,
    352 pages.
    Paperback: Dec 2012,
    384 pages.

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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.

Excerpted from The Undertow by Jo Baker. Copyright © 2012 by Jo Baker. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, 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.

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