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The Undertow, by Jo Baker.

February 7, 2015

The Undertow, by Jo Baker.  Vintage (2012), Paperback, 352 pages.

4 stars.

A powerful novel about a working-class family in England through four generations and ninety years.

Jo Baker is an exceptional storyteller. Here she weaves together the stories of several generation of the same family from 1914 to 2004. She doesn’t try to relate their continuous history, but focuses on clusters of events usually about a decade apart. For each date she provides several perspectives. For example for 1914 and 1945, we read about husbands and sons at the battle fronts and the women they left back in England. Baker’s structure highlights how her characters change over time as their roles, relationships and limitations change.

Strong women are shown in each generations, each unique and distinct. More of the attention, however, is on the fathers and sons, most of whom are involved in the wars which dot the twentieth century. Baker does a fine job of describing what it is like for the men on the battlefront; their fears, boredom, the violence, and the ways in which wartime experiences haunt them decades later.

A plot summary of this book would ruin the way in Baker builds suspense, on the battle field and at home. Each section serves as a distinct story while at the same time contributing to the overall themes and images that unite the whole book.

I choose to read this book because of how much I enjoyed Baker’s Mermaid’s Daughter. The Undertow is equally well crafted and more complex a story.  But personally I dislike reading so much about war.

I gladly recommend this book to other readers with more tolerance of violence than myself.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 9, 2015 3:59 pm

    You’ve reminded me that I want to give The Mermaid’s Child a go! I’m not good w violence, so I’ll be skipping this one.

  2. February 11, 2015 5:45 pm

    I’d not been so eager to read this if I had known the amount of violence. There is some in mermaid’s Child, but not nearly as much and more to make it worth reading.

    I handle reading about violence better than it is balanced with hope and joy.

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