The Undertow by Jo Baker

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.

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Jo Baker was born in Lancashire and educated at Oxford and Belfast. The Undertow is her first publication in the United States. She is the author of three previous novels published in the United Kingdom: Offcomer, The Mermaid’s Child, and The Telling. She lives in Lancaster.

From our Q&A with the author

Q: You drew inspiration from your own family story when writing The Undertow. When did you first learn of this family history and what made you decide to turn it into a novel?

A: I don’t think I would ever have come to write the book at all if it wasn’t for a piece of family history I stumbled on through a chance encounter in Valetta, Malta, where I was on a writers’ residency some years ago. At the time, I was working on my previous book, The Telling.

I used to go to the Barrakka Gardens—a beautiful place on the harbor walls. On one occasion an elderly gentleman struck up a conversation with me. A mine of local information, he was soon pointing out buildings of historical interest, including an old hospital where, he told me, the wounded from Gallipoli had been treated. My great grandfather had served, and died, at Gallipoli—that was all I knew about him. I told the old fellow about this, saying that of course, having died there, my great-grandfather wouldn’t have actually been in Malta. But, he told me, the ships refueled and took on supplies there on their way out. I realized that I was standing where my great grandfather may well have stood, ninety years previously, in radically different circumstances. The sense of connectedness, of time, gave me goose bumps.

When I returned home, I started researching my great-grandfather. There was not much known and there were no photographs, but the more I found out, the more fascinated I became, and the more aware of the starkness of his existence. He had grown up in a slum. No wonder he went to sea at fourteen. When he passed through Malta in 1915, he was on his way to die a very nasty, working-class death, trapped in the boiler room of his ship. I also came upon his post-card collection (which appears in the book), which revealed to me something of him as a person. The postcards, selected by him, preserved by his widow and then his son, showed him to be so alive to the world. He didn’t just go for the tourist shots—he had, for example, amassed a large collection of pictures of the excavations of Pompeii. He had an artist’s or a writer’s alertness to the world, I felt, though he never had the slightest chance of realizing that. I, on the other hand, had had the privilege of an Oxbridge education, and had been brought to Malta simply to write. What lay between us, and between the astonishing differences in our life-chances, was simply ninety years. I had to explore that.

Q: The Undertow follows one family through multiple generations, which you describe as a sort of narrative relay, with each character passing the baton to the next. Which time period was your favorite to write about?

A: Each period had its own pleasures and challenges, but I particularly loved writing the sections set in Battersea in the early part of the century, partly because the streets I’m writing about have disappeared—not just the houses, but the actual layout of the city there, the street-scape. Being close to the docks, the streets were flattened in the Blitz, and then built over after the war. It’s a particular pleasure to reconstruct something that no longer exists—out of old maps, daydreams, and from stomping round the remaining neighborhoods in Battersea.

I also loved writing the Malta sections—both the present day and the World War I section. I enjoyed working out the continuities and differences over time. And, when so much of the novel is set in England, it was wonderful to let rip on Mediterranean color and sunshine!

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