Summary and book reviews of The Undertow by Jo Baker

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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Book Summary

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 ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  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 ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

The Undertow deserves to be taken seriously. Stylistically, it's a book with a serious flavor... 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).

Full Review Members Only (1160 words).

Media Reviews
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.

Kirkus Reviews

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.

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A Brief History of Bicycles Through WWII

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:

    Drais's Laufmaschine 1817
  • 1817: Baron Karl von Drais of Germany invents an early bicycle prototype he calls a ...

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