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THE UNDERTOW by Jo Baker Kirkus Star

THE UNDERTOW

By Jo Baker

Pub Date: May 15th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-307-95709-2
Publisher: Knopf

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.