If you’ve ever been lulled into floating blissfully on an ocean, only to be suddenly frightened into realizing the current is taking you somewhere you had not planned, you have experienced that same uneasy drift as reading Jo Baker’s aptly named – The Undertow. As the story follows four generations from World War I to a terrorist bombing in 2005 – with a series of Williams – contentedly listing toward uneventful lives, Baker adds the currency of human frailty and unexpected events to jolt into another direction.
Like many family sagas, The Undertow follows the influence of inherited issues. The slow movement and long descriptions may try your patience at first. William Hastings, a sailor in the first World War, faithfully sends postcards to his pregnant wife in London telling her what she expects to hear, while he is yearning to sustain his adventure at sea and not return. William shares his ambivalent emotions with his mate, Sully – before dying under attack at sea. Sully continues to reappear throughout the generations – a dark and persistent reminder of the weaknesses pulling the characters under.
Billie, the son who never knew his father, grows up to be a star athlete, winning awards for biking, but his own demons keep him from the Olympics. He fights and survives in the second World War, but not before creating an incident that shapes his life when he returns. His son, Will, is born with a disability that prevents him from fulfilling his father’s athletic dreams. Will’s fate is Oxford; again, he manages to sabotage his own happiness.
Finally, Billie, the talented artist great-granddaughter, at first seems destined to follow her ancestors to an unfulfilled life. Sully again has an influence on her decisions, but this time she exonerates the family line. With a short scene at the end of the book that’s easy to miss, Billie’s self- assessment is jolting.
Baker cleverly uses props as reminders throughout the story, but chapters jump erratically in time – sometimes years have passed; sometimes only a day, and I always found myself flipping pages back. Baker’s strength is her careful description that targets the emotions of a scene:
“…the Dardanelles must be kept clear…What they carry back from the beaches are not boys. What they carry back are rinds and husks. They have become grocers of men. They deliver them ashore full and whole, then come back for the empties.”
This probably will do well as a paperback – a slow, methodical read for a beach or rainy afternoon. Nevertheless, The Undertow is not to be underestimated. Baker uses historical settings to connect to the ordinariness of lives, the simple decisions and uncontrollable events that change everything…
“…you can get your verse perfect…the meter and rhythm absolutely undeniably right and true, and then life just comes along and trips you up with inconvenient facts…”