Book of the Week
This week, we're in love with this intricate and sensitive historical novel: The Undertow
What is the legacy of four generations of loss? For Americans without a direct link to the current conflicts overseas, or who get their war news from TV or Twitter, the question can seem like a distant concept. Oddly enough, however, this tightly crafted English novel, tracing a family from World War 1 to Iraq, brings it to life. Jo Baker's story begins with William, a young factory worker, on the eve of Gallipoli, and then skips forward in time to his now adult son, Billy, who serves at D-Day. The action focuses less on the battlefield and more on the parallel lives of their two families - the everyday hunger (when men go missing, so does the paycheck), the undiscussed loneliness and extramarital affairs, the overwhelming desires by wives for something as mundane as a tube of red lipstick. In the '50s, Billy's son, Will, grows up in peacetime and succeeds as an academic at Oxford, only to fail as a husband due to his penchant for co-eds. "You know what your problem is, boy?" says his now elderly father. "You never had a war to go to." Out of context this may sound like a callous comment, but considering the layered perspectives throughout the narrative, which includes everyone from mothers-in-law talking to ghosts of their dead husbands, to an 8 year old boy aching for the love of his father, but unable to get it, it reflects what has been handed down in this family - grief and silence and private forbearing, as long-past violence stains every present-day interaction. Hope arrives at the end of the novel with Billie - a daughter named after the preceding William, Billy and Will - an artist who is unable to keep her little half-brother from volunteering in Iraq. While in Malta (the last place her great-grandfather was seen alive, though she doesn't know it), looking at a painting of the beheading of St John the Baptist, she says about the dying man on the canvas (and perhaps about the difficult, defining moments in all our lives) "You can't switch it off. You can't walk away. You have to look."
'Immediate, poignant and rarely predictable'
Awarded the Kirkus Star
The architecture of a family, constructed over decades, through relationships, wars and secrets, is assembled with fine detail and insight in an exceptional 20th-century saga.
Long, intricate, but never dull, English novelist Baker’s U.S. debut is a four-generational span of extraordinary history and ordinary lives, eloquent about the unshared interior worlds of individuals even when connected by the closest of bonds. Starting in London in 1914, it introduces young sweethearts William and Amelia Hastings, married just as World War I begins. Amelia, pregnant with Billy, will always stay faithful to William’s memory, tending the album of postcards he sent her, and when shipmate George Sully—a malevolent, recurrent, family-curse character—threatens, Amelia and Billy see him off together. Billy has a talent for cycling, but his prospects, as his own son’s will be, are clouded by issues of money and class, and then World War II intervenes. Billy survives to marry Ruby, a stylish Jew who also encounters George Sully but never tells her husband. The couple’s first child is Will, partly disabled by Perthes disease, whom Billy struggles to love. Clever Will achieves academic success at Oxford, but marries unhappily. It’s with his artistic daughter Billie that the book reaches its understated yet moving conclusion.
Immediate, poignant and rarely predictable, this searchingly observant work captures a huge terrain of personal aspiration against a shifting historical and social background. Impressive."
'A versatile and talented writer.'
Jo Baker's fourth novel is a multi-generational epic that follows the members of a family as they make their way through the twentieth century. Its fast-flowing style, sparky dialogue and lean narrative hops through decades, taking in wars, deaths, births, hardships and dark family secrets... It's a richly evocative story that Baker brings to a neat close with a defining moment in contemporary British history. Well crafted and highly readable, The Picture Book places Baker at the top end of the list of emerging, youngish British literary talent."
'Some writers let you know you're in safe hands from the start and Jo Baker is one of them.'
Some writers let you know you're in safe hands from the start and Jo Baker is one of them... There are gripping set-pieces, from childbirth to battlefield, all related in cut-glass prose and embedded with telling period detail. A satisfying generational history, Baker's novel is reminiscent of Margaret Forster's best work."
'Jo Baker is a novelist with a gift for intimate and atmospheric storytelling'
Jo Baker is a novelist with a gift for intimate and atmospheric storytelling. She crafts narratives that are eloquent about the connection between the present and the past ... The Picture Book is Baker's most ambitious work to date. Without being explicitly ghostly, it continues her pronounced interest in the invisible channels of communication between generations ... Baker 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."
'Baker's spare, visual prose is a treat to read.'
Spanning almost a century from World War I to the London bombings of 7/7 in 2005, this deeply affecting novel traces four generations of a family ... The novel has cumulative force, the final chapters impressing most. Baker infuses her fluid, descriptive prose with a brilliantly generous squirt of smells. This is a sweeping drama with real emotional depth."