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The Undertow Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 15, 2012
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Guest Reviewer: Kate Alcott on The Undertow by Jo Baker
Kate Alcott, the author of The Dressmaker, was a reporter covering politics in Washington D.C., where she and her husband still live.One warning for the reader about to open The Undertow: don’t plan to read this remarkable, tender novel in short snatches of time, because it won’t work. Jo Baker’s story following the Hastings family through four generations will pull you up and hold you to the last page.
A young and frightened seaman facing the battle of Gallipoli during World War 1 scribbles out a cheery postcard to his wife. Years later, his great-granddaughter picks the postcard out of an old album and thinks about what this distant, unknown man must have felt and feared; for her and for us, he breathes with life.
It is, yes, a grand sweep of a family’s love and sadness and joy through time – but what makes the story stand out is the author’s gift for drawing every character vivid and full. She paints them with finely tuned detail. She understands their strengths and weaknesses, and, with great sensitivity, their contradictions.
As in real lives, choices are made, paths taken and sometimes regretted. Always, time moves on. So settle down in a chair and dive in. Follow these people through chapters that crackle with the bloody horrors of war and others that end as lightly as a kiss. You will be absorbed by them all – and their stories are ones you will not soon forget.
“We’re in love with the intricate, sensitive historical novel The Undertow.” —Oprah.com (Book of the Week)
“Gripping . . . This portrait of four generations of a British family is emotionally powerful . . . Baker is skilled at evoking not only the distinctive social circumstances of the settings but the essential nature of each character . . . You can’t walk away from her book.” —New York Times Book Review
“Moving but never sentimental . . . The Undertow has a quiet, cumulative power; you read it not quite realizing how it’s burrowing under your skin . . . ‘The whole world in a little room,’ says Amelia to William in the book’s early pages, speaking of the miraculous way that cinema can capture a moment and show it anywhere. It’s a description that applies nicely to the experience of reading this novel, as well.” —Seattle Times
“An 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.” —Washington Post
“Richly evocative . . . Places Baker at the top end of the list of emerging British literary talent.” —Time Out London
“Poignant . . . An exceptional 20th-century saga . . . Intricate, but never dull, 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 . . . This searchingly observant work captures a huge terrain of personal aspiration against a shifting historical and social background. Impressive.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“The Undertow, so deeply and richly imagined, is one of those books that make you forget to turn off the bedside light. I found myself thinking, just one more page, and then, just one more chapter. If what you love is a larger-than-life story with epic dimensions that pulls you in and won’t let you go, this is your book.” —Kim Barnes, author of In the Kingdom of Men
“Some writers let you know you’re in safe hands from the start, and Jo Baker is one of them. Stretching from the First World War to the present day, this drama-rich saga unfolds as a series of intimate family portraits . . . There are gripping set-pieces, from childbirth to battlefield, all related in cut-glass prose and embedded with telling period detail.” —The Independent (UK)
“Jo Baker is a novelist with a gift for intimate and atmospheric storytelling . . . She skilfully delineates the currents of social change and the essential human drama that persists: the intertwining of love and grief, the moments of ecstasy that transfigure banality, and the painful throb of personal loyalty. She writes with conviction and an eye for pregnant detail. The result is an agile, keenly observed novel that evokes the minuscule rewards and disappointments of the everyday.” —Financial Times
“Deeply affecting . . . This is a sweeping drama with real emotional depth . . . The novel has cumulative force, the final chapters impressing most. Baker infuses her fluid, descriptive prose with a brilliantly generous squirt of smells [and sensations].” —Daily Mail (UK)
“A poignant, emotionally intense read that illuminates the legacies of love and loss for ordinary people.” —Marie Claire
“An emotionally involving story [whose] scenes ring true . . . Baker tackles Boy’s Own subjects—war, cycle racing, great escapes—with impressive confidence. Yet the book’s most moving moment is not amid the tragedy of war but in a quiet little scene between a teenage boy and his half-sister.” —The Observer (UK)
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Top customer reviews
as well. William llives briefly, but is followed by son Billy, grandson Will and great-grandaughter Billie as the years
describe Britain at war, at peace and at war once again. Well written, it is a page turner for those of us who enjoy
following one family and the choices they make through the decades, spanning the years between 1914 and 2004.
I recommend it.