Synopses & Reviews
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.
About the Author
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.
Reading Group Guide
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enliven your group’s discussion of Jo Baker’s American debut, The Undertow, an emotionally complex novel chronicling the lives of the Hastings family through four tumultuous generations.
1. Why has Jo Baker chosen The Undertow
for her title? Where does a literal undertow appear in the novel? What is the metaphoric undertow that exerts a pull on all the main characters?
2. Why does Baker begin the novel with Amelia and William at a cheap movie theater watching a film about treachery, jealousy, and betrayal, but which ends happily: “All troubles are over, all discord is resolved: no one loves the wrong person or wants something they can never have, or has to face something they simply cannot face” (p. 5). How does this opening scene set up some of the themes that will recur throughout the book?
3. What is the appeal of following a single family through four generations? In what ways are William, Billy, Will, and Billie remarkably alike? What common threads run throughout the generations? In what ways are they quite different from one another?
4. The desire to escape is a major theme of The Undertow. In what ways do William, Billy, Will, and Billie all attempt to escape? Why do they feel trapped? What different methods do they use to get free?
5. In what ways are history and family history deeply intertwined in The Undertow? How does the history that one generation lives through affect the next generation?
6. When William wanders into a cathedral on Malta in 1915, he sees Caravaggio’s painting The Beheading of St. John the Baptist and thinks: “This is not a holy picture. . . . This is not a holy place. There’s too much dirt and dark and blood: this is all too human . . . there’s no God, no guidance, no forgiveness here” (p. 21). Nearly ninety years later, Billie views the very same painting. Compare her response, on pp. 311–12, to her great-grandfather’s. How does the painting influence Billie’s own sense of artistic purpose?
7. Why would Billie want to paint “what people don’t look at . . . to paint it and put it in a frame and make it something that people really look at. Deliberately. That they linger over” (p 321)?
8. When Will worries that Billie’s painting of Matthew—which appears in a group of her paintings of wounded soldiers—is tempting fate, Billie says: “I think, whatever it is, by not looking at it, not saying it, not admitting it to yourself, that’s the temptation, that’s the danger. You’ve got to look fate right in the eye. You’ve got to stare it down” (p. 327). Is Billie right about this? In what ways does she embody a new openness that none of her ancestors could achieve?
9. What are the major secrets that run throughout the novel? What are their consequences?
10. How does Billy react to his son Will’s disability? Why does he feel his killing the boy in Normandy was the “down payment” (p. 175) for a second chance at having a healthy son?
11. In what ways does war pervade The Undertow? How does it affect each of the main characters? In what ways does the novel show the emotional costs of war across generations, for both men and women?
12. What role does Sully—William’s shipmate who survived the sinking of the Goliath—play in the novel? Is there a larger significance in his menacing reappearances?
13. When Amelia’s boss, Mr. Jack, mentions the rumor of a new front opening in France, he tells her: “But keep it to yourself, eh?. . . Keep mum.” Amelia thinks: “Motherhood and silence: why the same word?” (p. 149). What is the connection between motherhood and silence, especially for women of Amelia’s generation?
14. In what ways does The Undertow offer a very personal history of the twentieth century? Discuss the emotional evolution that occurs from William in 1914, through Billy and Will, to Billie in 2005?
15. Why has Jo Baker chosen to end the novel with a scene of lyrical tenderness, as Billie thinks of the future and the present: “There will be illness, and there will be death, and through it all there will be love. But for now, the blackbird still sings outside the window. Now, there is just the kiss, and the taste of coffee, and the clear strong knowledge that this, however long or brief, is happiness” (p. 341)? Why would Billie locate happiness in such a simple, ordinary moment? In what ways does this passage echo Billy’s philosophy of not looking further than the next ten yards?