Jo Baker captures the essence of how things were for Great Britain throughout the twentieth century,
having the Hastings family endure war, death, romance and marriage in a past that is reflected in the present.
She begins with a busy evening on York Road and its damp, raw atmosphere in which Amelia courts William Hastings, “a scruff from the wrong end of Battersea with too little to recommend him but a job on the factory floor and a bold manner.”
In a narrative painted in broad, sweeping strokes, Baker specializes in laconic characters in whom run deep currents of resentment. The reader quickly comes to understand that the Hastings family are mourning the past while also searching for ways to express their present lives. The book’s chief protagonist is Billy Hastings,
Amelia's embattled son who comes of age in in the 1930s during the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of World War
We know that The Undertow will turn on Billy’s life, yet only by degrees do we learn of his circumstances. A boy with “legs like pistons,” life for Billy heaves forward in lurches to the Olympic trials in Germany when he discovers a freedom in the power of cycling. Focusing on Billy’s time at the Western
Front, Baker describes the men smelling of tobacco smoke, leather, gun oil. A boy’s death in Normandy becomes Billy’s down payment and a part of his “drip of guilt,” misery and shame.
Baker laces the tale with gorgeous phrases (“streetlamps like dandelion clocks in the foggy dark“), and the author’s poetic writing packs a powerful emotional punch. Far from cheap sentimentality, Baker emphasizes real feelings and real angst for which there
is no easy or glib response. When William is packed off to Malta on the eve of the Gallipoli campaign, the assurance that he can have his old job back when the war is over does little to cure his feelings of being “wrong-footed,” of existing just in the shadows, of “coming and going as unnoticed as the gulls.”
It’s natural for Amelia to feel an unaccountable prickle of apprehension. Before William leaves, he gives her a presen: a postcard album, so that she can see everything he sees. In an unexpectedly delicate and moving manner, the inky blue album becomes a metaphor for their enduring love and for the transformation of England across the ages. There’s a constant sense of longing in Amelia; she
is haunted by William’s touch even when she wants Billy home with her cakes and tea and her knitting, so that everything exists in “ordinary harmony.”
Not for the impatient, reading this novel is like settling into someone’s fever-dream. There
is a constant tone of discontent, the characters so embittered even after the wars. Shell-shocked Billy returns from Normandy to face his disabled son, Will, who is determined to go from a cripple to captain of the football team in three years. Will’s daughter, Billie, travels to Valletta and sees in the flesh of St. John the Baptist, the poor bleeder, and her great grandfather’s vision of dirt, dark and blood in a world so cold and narrow, filled with shades of gray.
Driven by the high cost of war, Baker’s plotline carefully drops us into years and decades, sometimes giving just a snapshot of a person or a situation that
compounds the complicated family dynamic. A somewhat languid slow read that is at times a bit tedious,
there would have been potential for more if a different structure had been used in the telling of this very English story.