Posted by Jo Baker on May 17, 2012

Book of the Week

This week, we're in love with this intricate and sensitive historical novel: The Undertow

What is the legacy of four generations of loss? For Americans without a direct link to the current conflicts overseas, or who get their war news from TV or Twitter, the question can seem like a distant concept. Oddly enough, however, this tightly crafted English novel, tracing a family from World War 1 to Iraq, brings it to life.  Jo Baker's story begins with William, a young factory worker, on the eve of Gallipoli, and then skips forward in time to his now adult son, Billy, who serves at D-Day. The action focuses less on the battlefield and more on the parallel lives of their two families - the everyday hunger (when men go missing, so does the paycheck), the undiscussed loneliness and extramarital affairs, the overwhelming desires by wives for something as mundane as a tube of red lipstick. In the '50s, Billy's son, Will, grows up in peacetime and succeeds as an academic at Oxford, only to fail as a husband due to his penchant for co-eds. "You know what your problem is, boy?" says his now elderly father. "You never had a war to go to." Out of context this may sound like a callous comment, but considering the layered perspectives throughout the narrative, which includes everyone from mothers-in-law talking to ghosts of their dead husbands, to an 8 year old boy aching for the love of his father, but unable to get it, it reflects what has been handed down in this family - grief and silence and private forbearing, as long-past violence stains every present-day interaction. Hope arrives at the end of the novel with Billie - a daughter named after the preceding William, Billy and Will - an artist who is unable to keep her little half-brother from volunteering in Iraq. While in Malta (the last place her great-grandfather was seen alive, though she doesn't know it), looking at a painting of the beheading of St John the Baptist, she says about the dying man on the canvas (and perhaps about the difficult, defining moments in all our lives) "You can't switch it off. You can't walk away. You have to look." 

Leigh Newman