The Undertow by Jo Baker
Don’t look beyond the next 10 yards
The Undertow by Jo Baker begins in 1914 with a young couple, sweethearts, William and Amelia, at the cinema. The silent movie is a romantic comedy, with a lot of misunderstanding between the characters, all sorted out happily ever after at the end. If only life were like that.
Life as they knew it ends for William and Amelia with the beginning of the First World War. William off with the navy to the Dardanelles, the pregnant Amelia at home in England. Shoveling coal into the boiler on an ill-fated ship, William Hastings is desperate to survive the war.
The Undertow is one of those novels I’d like to tell you nothing about – except to read it. What I will try to do is leave as much as possible for you to discover when you read it, and still give you a sense of the novel.
So, we begin with William and Amelia, and conclude with their great granddaughter Billie Hastings almost a century later. In between there is Billy, son of William and Amelia, and his son Will, Billie’s father.
Amelia’s son becomes a cyclist, racing for England, before serving in the Second World War. Young Billy’s motto, in racing and in life, is “don’t look beyond the next 10 yards”. An attitude that serves him well and one that we might all have use for from time to time.
The men in this novel, including Will, son of Billy and his wife Ruby, born after the Second World War, are men who have a difficulty – an inability – to show their children the depth of their love. As we follow the lives of the characters Jo Baker has created in The Undertow, we move through the generations of a family, joined by love and obligation, and follow a thread of family history from 1914 to 2005. The characters introduced to us during the First World War haunt the generations that follow, often without their awareness. But, for the reader there is a sense of dread about what may come – how unfinished business from the choices made by William early in the story may have unhappy consequences for later generations.
This is a novel that will touch your heart, as you read about a son who so desperately wants to please his father, who when his father dies sobs as he clears out the family home. With his fathers’ death comes the end, he can no longer please of disappoint, it is simply over.
Babies are born, children are raised, parents die. Life goes on. Marriages survive, happily or not, others fail leaving some relived and others mourning. There are children and half-siblings, lonely grandparents and young people with dreams. All of them connected by the thread of the family they were born into. Every one of them becomes someone you want to know, and you hope that things will be good for them no matter what life might bring – that it will all be happily ever after.