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The Undertow

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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.

352 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2011

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About the author

Jo Baker

17 books831 followers
Jo Baker is the author of six novels, most recently Longbourn and A Country Road, A Tree. She has also written for BBC Radio 4, and her short stories have been included in a number of anthologies. She lives in Lancaster, England, with her husband, the playwright and screenwriter Daragh Carville, and their two children.

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5 stars
137 (17%)
4 stars
252 (31%)
3 stars
281 (35%)
2 stars
92 (11%)
1 star
28 (3%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 162 reviews
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,694 reviews1,478 followers
October 28, 2017
This is my second book by Jo Baker. I adore how this author writes. I adore how she strings together her words. I adore the simplicity of her lines. Simple lines that speak volumes. In my review of A Country Road, A Tree I wrote: “The writing is not flowery nor elaborate. It catches the atmosphere of a place, emotions and events with a minimum of words. The result is clean and strong, efficient, moving, deep and philosophical all at the same time.” The same is true here. I cannot give a book with such wonderful writing anything less than four stars. If you have not tried this author, you must.

So what is the plot about? We follow four generations of an English family, from 1914 to 2005. William Hastings departs on a ship for Gallipoli, both to see the world and to fight for his country. Then comes Billy who is a bicycle champion and one of the many to take part in the landing in Normandy, June 6, 1944. Yes, D-Day! British soldiers used bicycles in World War Two. Then follows Billy’s son Will, a crippled Oxford academic. The last is Billie an artist in contemporary London.

You could say the book is about the 20th century, but I would say it is about life. Readers will recognize themselves in the events of the story - the struggles of life, the mistakes one makes, the courage it sometimes takes to go on. Fumbled relationships. Happy moments and terrible ones, all mixed together. Deaths and illness, but also the love felt for a child, a happy dog with a wagging tail and hope for the future. This is a book about normal people, and I liked that. It is not about criminals or famous heroes or particularly remarkable people. If you are looking for a fast-paced plot-driven story, look elsewhere. If extramarital love affairs are going to get you all upset, the book isn’t for you either. Plenty does happen, and there are certainly exciting episodes, but it is in the recognition of everyday moments that the book excels – the shoveling of coal, the pumping of your leg on a bicycle, bathing with a little sister and the horror on seeing her slip under the water. She is there and then she is gone. Whose fault is that, and who is to take the blame? There is physicality in the writing; you feel your own foot push the pedal. There is also an emotional pull, rooted in each reader’s personal memories as we relate to the events in the book.

This book has two titles, The Picture Book and The Undertow. The first captures beautifully the snapshots this book delivers of the characters’ lives. Each chapter’s title tells you where and when the events occur, sometimes a day or two after the last, sometimes a decade later, but always moving forward in time. It is never hard to understand where you are in place or time or whose thoughts we are sharing. The picture book also refers to a book to collect postcards, the postcards sent by the first William to his newly-wed wife Amelia when he went off by ship to war. The second title, The Undertow, refers to the undertow of life, where life drags you.

The different generations are each well drawn. The reader experiences the passage of time through the characters’ lives. Each of the four characters becomes an entity, someone you know and can relate to. The snapshots meld, drawing a picture of each person over their entire lifetime, except for Billie. We follow her to the age of thirty-one.

In my last review, I offered very few quotes. Here I have made an effort to copy more, but keep in mind I was listening to the words, not reading them; there may be some errors. Only by reading the book will you see the lines in their proper context.

“You can’t be permanently hysterical, so you might as well not bother getting started.”

“He is alright. He is fine. You cannot wrap him up in cotton-wool.”

“He is alone with his boy. Billy’s legs lift and sink, and lift again, one after the other on either side of the child. If he slips this way, I will catch him. If he slips that way, I will catch him too. The little head is heavy. It nods, and Billy puts an arm around the long slack body and cycles one-handed. I will always catch you. I will always keep you safe.”

“The world is fucking treacherous. You can’t trust it.”

“His fingernails are rimmed with little-boy-dirt.”

“Now that he is gone, there is a hole left in the world.”

“You and him though,” he says “that was different……Yeah, he liked you. I mean he loved you, but he liked you too. He never liked me.”

“Maty is fourteen-years-old and therefore still immortal, and there is no arguing with that!”

“The imagined and the real shift and slide across each other like layers of tracing paper and can’t be made to fit together.“

“He and Kiran were like sandpaper. Whatever one of them said, it seemed to grate the other.”

“She wants to tell him about the hare skull, the dry newt with the dimpled eyes, the earlobe. These things, these damaged treasures, they need to be looked at, considered. They have their own beauty too.”

“You know I really love what you have done to the place.” Kiran, when he views Billie’s room with clothes hung over furniture, books in heaps on the floor, total disorder reigning. I stuck this in so you see the book’s humor.

“You have to look fate in the eye. You have to stare it down.“

In my view, the last quote encapsulates one of the book’s messages. The book is also about family; we may think each generation stands alone, but that is not so. It is about fathers and sons and daughters. We love and we hurt each other in equal measure. With time, we get over the hurt because we are family. No, we don’t forget, but the anger subsides.

The audiobook narration by Anna Bentinck is fabulous. The tempo, the pauses, the accents – all were perfect.
Profile Image for Jane.
820 reviews610 followers
November 24, 2011
It feels terribly clichéd to talk about words painting pictures but, although I have tried to find other words, I can really think of no better way to express my feelings about this book.

The author allows her reader to observe lives, visiting and watching. And it works beautifully, because she understands the maxim show don’t tell.

She writes in the first person present tense, something I don’t usually like. But after the first page I didn’t think about it. I was caught up.

The story opens in The Electric Theatre on York Road in Battersea. The date is 14th August 1914.

William and Amelia have come to see a film. Of course in 1914 that was a grand adventure, and a wonderful treat.

It was also a farewell. William was to go to war and Amelia was to be left behind. That was why William gave Amelia the picture book. An album that she could fill with the picture postcards he promised to send from wherever he might be sent.

William sees and wonders at the world. And he must face the war at Galipolli.

Amelia raises their son, Billy, and they must both face battles of their own.

Billy marries Ruby, who is Jewish, before he is caught up in another war.

Billy and Ruby’s son, Will, grows up in a very different, post-war world and becomes an academic.

His first child is a daughter, Billie, and she moves the story into the present day and brings it full circle.

That broad story is perfectly captured. The world changes, and yet so much remains the same. Patterns repeat, and patterns change.

But there is so much more. So many crucial, small details. Actions. Events. Emotions. They show exactly what you need in order to understand. No more and no less. And they show how choices, both conscious and unconscious, can have repercussions long into the future.

The Picture Book shows real people, real lives, real emotions. Painted perfectly. Pictures of childhood, adulthood and old age. Pictures of a century of history and social change. So many pictures.

I knew nothing before I picked up The Picture Book and I gained so much from reading with no foreknowledge. That is why I shall share no more details. And that is why I shall write no more.
585 reviews9 followers
July 12, 2012
"Don't look beyond the next ten yards," is the advice Mr. Rudd gives Billy Hasting, a cyclist and the second generation Hastings protagonist in this multi-generational novel. The advice echoes forward across the years to the final Hastings, Billie, who has learned from her family history to take her joy when and where she can find it. In juxtaposition to this perhaps hopeful advice is the looming shadow of the evil Mr. Sully and his bitten-off earlobe, saved by Billy's mother and accidentally passed on to Billie. Baker's use of symbolism here will be a fun discussion topic for many a book group. Determination often eroded by infidelity: this motif unifies the novel as it portrays 90 years of struggle and love of the four Hastings generations. The impact of war on the lives of the Hastings family and on the British is all pervasive, yet the novel encompasses the daily lives of non-combatants as well.

I hated to see the book end and will read the next Jo Baker. She understands how fast life passes, how little we appreciate what we have when we have it, and our regrets once the precious present is gone forever. Her writing pulled me in so effectively that her fictional world was temporarily as real as the one I actually inhabit.

However, one caveat: Each section begins with a date and location. The next section may be one day or several years later. I wish the editors had put the date of each section at the top of every page in that section! I spent far too much time paging back to figure out how much time had passed, doing the mental arithmetic to learn the characters' new ages, to know whose death to expect next.
Profile Image for Ann Carboneau.
124 reviews5 followers
February 10, 2023
Masterful. How is this her debut?! The kind of writing that wraps around your heart and soul and leaves you simply wanting more.
Profile Image for Chris Witkowski.
399 reviews21 followers
January 5, 2013
Was looking for a book to borrow from the library for my new Kindle and happened upon this, knowing absolutely nothing about it, not really expecting too much. I was pleasantly surprised. This is a haunting novel that spans four generations of of a British family, starting with William Hastings as he marches off to World War I, leaving his pregnant new bride who spends her days longing for the postcards he sends from the "exotic" places he was posted to. The novel is broken into rather short sections spanning decades at a time, but this piecemeal way of telling the story is quite effective and we are given fully developed characters.

It is in many ways a heartbreaking story, with war wreaking devastation on the Hastings family, directly and indirectly. The relationships between fathers and sons is also a major theme; the author deftly portrays just how painful a father's disapproval can be. And what if you never knew your father?

An sad, poignant, vivid, and ultimately hopeful novel. I highly recommend it.
Profile Image for Chaitra.
3,300 reviews
July 23, 2012
Eh. Interesting premise, but under 350 pages to tell your story of four generations is not enough. No character is fleshed out, what is put on paper is highly unlikeable. These are really not people I want to read about. Except Billie, who's ok. But she's too little, too late. We don't spend much time with her either. Baker keeps lighting down on our protagonists during not particularly interesting times. Major events in their lives have either happened in the past or is yet to happen. This is annoying when it keeps happening to all variations of Williams. Ugh. It's basically a technique I - a complete non-writer - would have come up with if I wanted to write an arty piece. Another major gripe: were these guys so unimaginative that they could come up with no other name? Even when none of the Wills have particularly happy lives?
Profile Image for Gabi Coatsworth.
Author 6 books151 followers
February 6, 2013
I enjoyed this book, perhaps because I'm British but live in the US, and perhaps because I'm interested in the wars that shaped the last century. The structure is interesting, though the short extracts from the lives of four generations of a British family where all the protagonists are called a version of William made me feel that perhaps I wanted a four book saga. The writer pulls no punches in writing about war and its effect on Britain's ordinary families, and for that I give her credit. For some reason I found the book overall a bit unsatisfying.
Profile Image for Carolyn.
1,093 reviews12 followers
September 16, 2019
This is a family saga - following different generations from the First World War to the current day. This is not my preferred genre - I think it's almost inevitable that as an author skips from one generation to the next that development of character will be sacrificed to a broader canvass. That's what I found here. I loved the first section and the character of William. I thought the descriptions of his inner conflicts after leaving behind a brief marriage to join the navy, as well as the way the naval Gallipoli campaign was portrayed were excellent. Very strong writing. However, I lost some interest when the next generation (Billy) came along and even more with his son, Will. Relationships were glossed over too quickly for my liking - and, mea culpa, I did skim a bit at this point so am probably not being fair. I did re-engage when we reached the current generation but overall, I felt that the novel didn't live up to its powerful and effective beginnings.
Profile Image for Sarah Beth.
898 reviews32 followers
May 12, 2012
I won this novel as a giveaway on Goodreads.

This is a generational novel that follows four generations of the Hastings family from William in WWI, his son Billy, a champion cyclist who ends up in WWII, his son Will who becomes an Oxford professor, and his daughter Billie, who is an artist in present day. This book was originally published in the UK with the title The Picture Book. The former title refers both to a book of postcards the original William sent back from WWI, but also describes the structure of this novel, which is presented as a series of snapshots of each character. I believe I like the original title better, as it more accurately describes the novel.

I ended up liking this novel much more than I initially thought I would. The first section, from the perspectives of William and his wife Amelia were stilted and didn't draw me in the way the later sections of the novel did. Yet by the conclusion I really loved this book. It was interesting seeing the progression of time, and how older characters faded out of existence, yet some of their traits lived on in their offspring. It was sad that infidelity seemed to be something many of the Hastings had in common. Additionally, few had happy or close relationships with their fathers. But all of Baker's characters are flawed, and thus more realistic. I also enjoyed the way the third person narration jumped in perspective so you got to see the world from many characters points of view.

The ultimate lesson of Baker's book is that time marches on, and every life has its own struggles, even though those differ from person to person. Love is the only common denominator.
42 reviews
May 25, 2012
Jo Baker's American debut of a novel is an enthralling, moving story of one family crossing four generations of time. The chapters move from one couple to the next, including their children and the process of growing up along the way. Each generation encounters their own unique hardships, including different wars, and Baker illustrates these challenges eloquently, allowing the reader to easily connect with the characters.

William is the first man discussed, and goes into the Navy in 1914. His son, Billy, tries hard to overcome shattered dreams of his own. Will seems content with his life, even though he has a disability that his dad never seems to truly accept. BIllie is the youngest in this family story, and through mementos gets to know her grandmother's secrets.

This book resonates, not only because many people can relate to the events referenced, but also because this family functions so similarly to so many families in a timeless manner. There are secrets and choices, and some bitter feelings, but despite this, the family stays strong. The members of the Hastings family, in each generation, work to forge their own identities, while still relying on each other. With Jo Baker's writing, the reader understands that, in this family, and in true life as well, love is the powerful glue that holds everything together.

**I Won This Book In A FirstReads Giveaway**
9 reviews2 followers
June 7, 2012
If you like stories that deeply explore a concentrated slice of life, The Undertow will provide you with a very satisfying read. Personally, I like that type of writing and believe it is accomplished very effectively by British writers. Jo Baker reminds me of writers like Helen Dunsmore, Mona Simpson, Margo Livesey - writers who give us a worldview where the whole is more than the sum of its parts. By exploring several generations of the same family, focusing on how people react to circumstances and pain beyond their control, Baker shows us how family attachments are our downfall as well as what saves us. The Hastings family passes along its mythology and secrets from one generation to the next. As with many families, the legacy given to each member is guided by both intentional and unintentional knowledge and actions. Jo Baker has created compelling characters who draw us into their lives as they struggle to sort out what to embrace and what to overcome as they face their inevitable inheritance.
Profile Image for Nikki.
206 reviews23 followers
January 10, 2014
I thought this was an interesting book about how war impacted several generations of one family. While I enjoyed reading it, it had some flaws. The biggest being, until the final Billie, there were no likeable characters. Relationships consisted of the party who had an extramarital affair for often incomprehensible reasons and the pathetic and/or self-righteous injured party. The book felt like a series of short stories, which were compelling to read but made me feel like I never fully got to know any of the characters. Each time I thought I'd figured out what the book was about, the next chapter would jump ahead a decade, and I'd be clueless yet again.

However, I found it to be a thought-provoking book. It's one of those books I'd like someone smarter than myself to read so they can fully explain the symbolism and deeper meaning to me. I caught the obvious metaphor of the undertow and did not fail to miss the actual undertow in the middle of the book, but I'm sure I didn't catch it everything.
Profile Image for Cian O hAnnrachainn.
133 reviews25 followers
June 9, 2012
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way, and Jo Baker does a fine job of presenting that desperation.

The novel follows four generations of a British family, from the onset of WW I through modern times. Each generation struggles with poverty in a manner befitting the setting, and each generation is possessed of a certain hope that things will get better so they hang on.

The author uses present tense to lend a sense of immediacy, drawing in the reader. The characters are so thoroughly British in their closed emotions, which of course leads to conflict between generations.

The recurring conflict moves the narrative. In the end, the author comes full circle in a little literary trick that may or may not ring true for most readers.

Overall, I enjoyed reading the book, although it did get a bit draggy near the end.
1,365 reviews8 followers
January 29, 2012
Starting just before WW1 this is the story of 4 generations, each one with their own talents. The final focus on the gt grand daughter neatly pulls together the story. In the final two pages the story links to the future and events which the reader will be familiar with. Although I didn't like all the main characters by an means it was an enjoyable read. There were some open ends which kept the tension going. There was no sense of the author giving her opinion - the characters talked for themselves. Will be reading some of her earlier novels.
Profile Image for Aliki Ekaterini  Chapple.
91 reviews6 followers
April 17, 2012
This is the US title of The Picture Book, one of my favourite novels of the last year. Lyrical and lucid, the book's series of snapshots from the life of one family over most of a century has lingered in my mind over the months since I read it in a way that many a wordier tome would envy. Baker's characters are tenderly, but not uncritically examined, their foibles as well as their heroism, and she has a gift for the unexpected turn of descriptive phrase which catalyzes a broader understanding. A lovely novel.
Profile Image for Mary.
629 reviews
May 12, 2012
This book was beautifully written with rich, deep characters and a compelling storyline. The story spans four generations with a feel of short stories about each yet neatly intertwined so that the book has a nice overall flow. This story was hard to put down, which is surprising for me since I am usually impatient with short stories as they often leave me wanting more. Instead, this book gave enough detail to make me love and enjoy the characters, yet kept moving at a rapid pace.

Reader received a complimentary copy from Good Reads First Reads.
Profile Image for Kirsty Darbyshire.
1,091 reviews49 followers
January 9, 2012
I picked this up because I liked Fleur's review of it. If you're in the mood for a family tale that takes you from 1914 to, I forget exactly, 2000 and a bit, but isn't exactly a family saga then this is the thing to read. Short portraits of the lives of four generations that make a great story when they are put together. Quite delightful.
Profile Image for Melinda.
545 reviews15 followers
June 30, 2014
The Undertow chronicles the Hastings family and their secrets, dreams and heartbreaks. The book spans between 1914-2004 and is comprised of multiple storylines that follow four generations of the family. While not my favorite book I've read this year it kept my interest (at least most of the time). I especially liked the author's unflinching look of the two world wars. The Undertow is really a history of ordinary lives and the choices people make.
41 reviews
January 7, 2015
I enjoyed the story/stories of the four generations. Slow getting into the book but as each generation came along I became caught up in their 'ups and downs' by the time I got to Billie I definitely had to finish it to find out how she found her happiness. Sometimes very sad and sometimes very happy but most of the story was 'life'.
1,193 reviews3 followers
November 20, 2012
One of the most boring books I've ever struggled through. There was little character development and the only tension was provided by the character of Sully, who threatened, but never seriously, three generations of the Hastings family. When he showed up yet again in Oxford, I began to wonder just how long Sully was going to live! Don't waste your time or your money,
32 reviews7 followers
May 19, 2012
This book flowed well through the generations. Even though it typically only covered a short period of time for the main characters you understood them well. Great descriptive language. Thought provoking book. Will look for others by this author.
Profile Image for Zoe Ferren.
Author 2 books
May 20, 2012
A very beautiful story all around. Not so much the characters but their lives are what is most interesting to me. This author has great storytelling skills that will make you keep the book in your hand till your done reading! Thanks for a speedy delivery.
Goodreads winner
Profile Image for Amanda.
173 reviews14 followers
May 24, 2012
I loved the format of this book-- dipping into a family's life every few years made it feel epic, yet not bogged down. The author had a remarkable way of describing simple things, like the "inky black" of a dog's coat. I loved this one.
Profile Image for Don.
293 reviews3 followers
August 3, 2012
The writing is beautiful, and I found much of the book gripping, but it just didn't work for me as a novel. It reads more like a series of loosely connected short stories. Which is fine. Nothing wrong with that. Just didn't totally work for me.
528 reviews2 followers
June 4, 2012
Follows four generations of the Hastings family in England, spanning the years between WWI and present. A capitivating literary journey.
November 27, 2018
Janie and I listed to this great family generational novel as an audiobook over a period of several months which in retrospect seems appropriate for a story that spanned over 100 years. Jo Baker begins with William, a British WWI sailor, who dies a tragic sailors death and acquires a dubious friend, Sully, who resurfaces repeatedly in the story and ends with Billie, his great granddaughter artist. All of the characters are compelling and the author uses an interesting (and moderately annoying) device of never finishing a story until much later in the book when the character reflects back upon his or her life. The bicycle racer Will, William's son, is a good example with the explanation of how he fails to qualify for the Berlin Olympics or the story of what happens to his friend in the D-Day landing isn’t revealed until Will is an old man reflecting on his life. You will definitely want to read Jo's other books.
1,867 reviews16 followers
June 15, 2017
I just didn't love it - the first-person present tense, and the overwhelming depressing atmosphere of the narrative. No one is terribly happy or content, really, and we spend so little time with many people and relationships that it's hard to care one way or another about them. It was fascinating to realize that the same author wrote Longbourn, which I loved; I think this book just didn't delve thoroughly enough into any particular person's life for me to feel like they had any real happiness.
Profile Image for Tanya Bellehumeur-Allatt.
Author 2 books7 followers
January 6, 2021
This is an incredible book. The writing is sensational and the structure is unique and extremely clever. I found myself underlying several passages and going back to re-read. I don't usually like a book with multiple points of view and a changing cast of characters, but this one captivated me from start to finish-especially the last third. I found it thought-provoking and searingly honest. If you loved Longbourne, also by Jo Baker, you'll enjoy this book. I've already got The Body Lies (a thriller by the same author) on my bedside table.
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