“The Undertow” is the fourth novel published by English writer Jo Baker but her first in the United States. In this traditional, generational story, wars form the structural clothesline that holds up the laundry of a working-class family.
We first see the Hastingses when young William is about to be shipped off to Gallipoli in 1915. Already, he has the queasy feeling that he’s been cheated out of his life. Amelia, so delicious and sensuous before they got married, has turned into a prig who shows only distaste for her husband’s amorous advances. Maybe it’s because she’s already pregnant, living in a poky working-class home with William’s dad. Soon enough William is stuck out in Malta waiting for the English part of an invasion to begin. It occurs to him, inevitably, that his life is without meaning; he has little chance of actually living it out. He’s no more than a pawn in Winston Churchill’s overarching game.
Back home, his wife and their young son, Billy, live one step from starvation — although Amelia does everything in her power to keep things nice and dotes on Billy, who finds his life’s vocation early. He delivers groceries on a bike after school and discovers that he has an astonishing gift for speed. As he grows into his teens, he wins a few important bike races and can barely wait for the Olympic trials in Germany, but we find that Billy, too, is nothing but a pawn of the government. A diet of awful British working-class food has left him unable to compete with the big boys. He is, however, able-bodied enough to be sent behind German lines in World War II.
The more things change, the more they remain the same. Billy finds a beautiful girl, but she seeks temporary relief from their scalding poverty with an upper-class gent who treats her to lobster and caviar, and then takes advantage of her. Billy, embittered, comes home to a disabled son, Will, who may or may not be his. The boy’s medical treatment is deplorable. How can a person escape from this ongoing, deeply insulting deprivation? In Will’s case, he takes the academic route, ending up as a scholarship boy and then an Oxford-educated don. But he is tormented by fury at his fate, which takes the form of ruthless, constant womanizing.
This isn’t exactly an anti-war book. One of the later Hastingses can’t wait to get into uniform and by the end of the book is in the Middle East, where, presumably, he has at least a chance of coming home. And despite its heartless behavior in the early pages, that same war-mad government has left a few cracks so that the Hastings family can move up, just a little.Technology — when it’s not killing people — has helped: Electric lights, indoor plumbing, motor cars have improved the lot of the average man.
Over several lifetimes, there’s as much individual evil as the governmental kind in this engaging novel. The Hastings family must fend off adversity of all kinds and from every side. Their challenges — so movingly detailed here — provide a profound sense of the whole tumultuous century.
See regularly reviews books for The Post.
By Jo Baker
Knopf. 335 pp. $25.95