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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  • First Published:
    May 2012, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Dec 2012, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer G Wilder

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About this Book

Print Excerpt


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.

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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