by Jo Baker
Paperback (11 Dec 2012), 384 pages.
The American debut of an enthralling new voice: a vivid, indelibly told work of fiction that follows four generations of a family against the backdrop of a tumultuous century - a novel about inheritance, about fate and passion, and about what it means to truly break free of the past.
This is the story of the Hastings family - their secrets, their loves and losses, dreams and heartbreaks - captured in a seamless series of individual moments that span the years between the First World War and the present. The novel opens in 1914 as William, a young factory worker, spends one last evening at home before his departure for the navy... His son, Billy, grows into a champion cyclist and will ride into the D-Day landings on a military bicycle... His son in turn, Will, struggles with a debilitating handicap to become an Oxford professor in the 1960s... And finally, young Billie Hastings makes a life for herself as an artist in contemporary London. Just as the names echo down through the family, so too does the legacy of choices made, chances lost, and truths long buried.
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!
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.
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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)?
- 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?
- What are the major secrets that run throughout the novel? What are their consequences?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
The Hastings are engagingly real, regular folk. They may have their flashes of vision and talent, but mainly they are occupied with securing their comforts in life - love, shelter, enough to eat. The pain and loss of the two World Wars take their toll on the family, tugging on the fates of the surviving members for generations. In Jo Baker's vision, the "undertow" of the title - the strong, slightly sinister pull of large-scale events - exerts an undeniable force on people that isn't always visible from the surface.
Water metaphors swirl through Baker's fiction like hidden currents in a seaside postcard. From literal water-crossings (naval battles in WWI and the all-important landing at Normandy in WWII), Baker moves into the territory of watery nightmares, water breaking in labor, water sloshing in the bath. The overt traumas of war shift and mutate into hidden hurts - tempers and grief, an overly devoted parent and a detached one. In Baker's world, the individual is not a craggy, solitary romantic figure, not a hero standing apart, but instead, one wave in a whole sea of waves, moved by forces of a different order of magnitude. She suggests that one generation's defining moments cannot be understood or brought to fruition on the scale of one human life, although even tiny events can create large shifts in the current. When Billy, the second-generation William Hastings, gets his first job at age 10 in 1925, it involves a grocer's delivery bike. His love and mastery of that bike leads to the start of a racing career and beyond, into currents of disappointed ambition and expectation that agitate the family for another two generations.
Baker launches The Undertow into a harbor already crowded with famous examples of the family and war saga, putting her subtle novel into the company of bolder, more melodramatic works like Ian McEwan's Atonement, however her artistry differs from the knock-your-socks off effects of other books. If Atonement is a dark painting in bold, textured oil on canvas, The Undertow is more like watercolor on paper. Baker's colors are subtle hues in the pastel range, her effects natural and flowing. Her characters are more ordinary and, by extension, more real. The horrors of war filter into the story through only one pair of eyes, giving us a human-scale vision of such cataclysms. What the Hastings family lacks in melodrama, it gains in authenticity. Readers will find it easy to relate to the psychology of the Hastings clan and may find themselves wishing they could read the underlying currents of their own families with as discerning an eye as Baker.
Interestingly, the female characters in The Undertow seem more peripheral than the men, less richly explored and less determinate. This reads less as a lack of imagination on Baker's part than as an honest historical device. The matriarch, Amelia, and the mother, Ruth, have less agency and fewer choices than their husbands and sons. When times change, the narrative changes, and the female Billie Hastings at the end of the book has many more choices as she goes about creating an identity and building a life.
The Undertow deserves to be taken seriously. Stylistically, it's a book with a serious flavor. (I was startled when I came across the first "joke", one character's feeble attempt to get a laugh out of another, on page 291.) The shining dreams of youth never come easily to fruition, and hope and beauty reveal themselves in flashes. It takes more than one generation to fulfill an ambition, and when luxury and plenty come to the family (enough to eat at every meal, a big house to live in), the younger generation takes the gains for granted. For all its watercolor lightness, The Undertow has a very sober take on the mixed, muddled nature of life.
Reviewed by Jennifer G Wilder
Starred Review. Immediate, poignant and rarely predictable, this searchingly observant work captures a huge terrain of personal aspiration against a shifting historical and social background. Impressive.
Time Out London (UK)
Richly evocative... Places Baker at the top end of the list of emerging British literary talent.
The Independent (UK)
Some writers let you know you're in safe hands from the start, and Jo Baker is one of them. Stretching from the First World War to the present day, 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.
Financial Times (UK)
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 intertwining of love and grief, the moments of ecstasy that transfigure banality, and the painful throb of personal loyalty. She writes with conviction and an eye for pregnant detail. The result is an agile, keenly observed novel that evokes the minuscule rewards and disappointments of the everyday.
The Daily Mail (UK)
Deeply affecting... This is a sweeping drama with real emotional depth... The novel has cumulative force, the final chapters impressing most. Baker infuses her fluid, descriptive prose with a brilliantly generous squirt of smells [and sensations].
Marie Claire (UK)
A poignant, emotionally intense read that illuminates the legacies of love and loss for ordinary people.
The Observer (UK)
An emotionally involving story [whose] scenes ring true... Baker tackles Boy's Own subjects - war, cycle racing, great escapes - with impressive confidence. Yet the book's most moving moment is not amid the tragedy of war but in a quiet little scene between a teenage boy and his half-sister.
In The Undertow, the second-generation Billy Hastings makes a name for himself as a racing cyclist in the years between World War I and World War II and goes on to serve in a vital detachment of bicycle soldiers on D-Day in 1944. Bicycle racing had already accumulated a long history by the 1920s and military groups all over the world, such as the British Cyclist Divisions, experimented with bicycle infantry, ambulance transporters, messengers and scouts. (Bicycles were more affordable than horses, and they reduced the need for fuel used by motorized vehicles.) Here are a few significant turning points in the chronology of bicycle history:
- 1817: Baron Karl von Drais of Germany invents an early bicycle prototype he calls a laufmaschine ("walking machine" - which later becomes known as a "draisine" in honor of the baron). The machine has wheels and handlebars, but no pedals, and is maneuvered by pushing the feet against the ground.
- 1865: Pedals appear, and the draisine evolves into a velocipede - any human-powered land vehicle with more than one wheel - with a wooden frame and solid tires made of metal or rubber. The ride is jarring, and the machines come to be called "boneshakers." More comfortable riding could be practiced at smooth-floored indoor riding academies, however.
- 1868: The first recorded bike race takes place in the Parc de Saint-Cloud in Paris. The race was 1.2 kilometers long and was won by Englishman James Moore.
- 1870s: Advances in technology allow for the first metal-frame bikes, and "high-wheelers" appear. Pedals are attached directly to a large front wheel, which translates into more motion for each revolution of the pedal. As a consequence, people can move at faster speeds. Falls from the high seats, however, are often disastrous. Still, cycling as a hobby and a sport arrives.
- 1881: Grueling "six-day racing" grows in popularity in England and America, whereby a single rider or a pair of riders circle a track for six days or until a collapse. The sport is outlawed in both countries within a few years because it is so dangerous.
- 1889: The invention of pneumatic tires - tires made of reinforced rubber and filled with air - changes bike racing forever. Two-wheeled "safety bikes" evolve into lighter bikes with chain and sprocket technology, and the era of high-wheelers comes to an end.
- 1896: The first bicycle road event in Olympic history takes place. Meanwhile, women are discovering the freewheeling ease of cycling. Susan B. Anthony writes that "the bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world."
- 1903: The first Tour de France road race is held as a promotion for a sports newspaper. The prize money totals a whopping 20,000 francs (12,000 for first place, which is approximately six times what a factory worker would have made in a year). A similar race in Italy, the Giro d'Italia, begins a few years later.
- 1914: During World War I, armies on both sides continue to make use of bicycles for light infantry and messengers. Bikes have the advantage of being light and fast, and do not require the upkeep of cavalry horses.
- 1940s: Japan makes extensive use of bicycles during its campaigns in Asia prior to and during World War II. Allied forces begin to use bike troops less and less as mechanized transport becomes a faster, more protective option.