“What’s Coming”: Jo Baker, The Undertow

Billie puts her mug of coffee down too, then goes round to place the vase on the windowsill. The flowers seem almost to glow in the spring light. All these little things, these kindnesses that Billie does for her: it’s an odd reversal, being looked after like this. Madeline catches the scent of ginger and lemon, and the flowers’ sharp musk, and beneath that the warm oiliness of her daughter’s coffee, and then under it all the rank whiff of wool from the rug over her knees, and it makes her stomach churn. She swallows, raises her face to the breeze from the window. She feels a wash of love and gratitude, and after it an undertow of grief. Deep in her flesh, she knows what’s coming. What she’s going to put Billie through.

The Undertow is the kind of book that can sound like—and often is—a soggy cliché: a multigenerational saga, the story of a family across a turbulent century that sees three of its sons go off to war and all of its mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, pass through dramatic changes of morals, mores, and fashions … you know the type! And it is exactly that kind of novel structurally; it’s just that Baker is a good enough writer to use this conventional framework in a fresh and often moving way. In fact, The Undertow may be my favorite Jo Baker novel so far.

The Undertow follows four generations of the Hastings family: William, his son Billy, his son Will, and his daughter Billie. “The lot of you,” Billie says, “like a set of Russian dolls … Chips off the old block, the lot of you.” Then, seeing that she has made her father Will uneasy, she qualifies her observation: “Same block, maybe, different chips.” Will’s discomfort reflects his fraught relationship with Billy, whose harsh moodiness (though Will does not know this) reflects his difficulty accepting what, in his mind, was the price he paid for the life Will would go on to lead: his killing of a young German sniper during the D-Day invasion. It’s an episode told without flamboyance—Baker’s style here, as in the other novels of hers that I’ve read, is concrete and descriptive, not minimalist but powerfully concise:

The day is muffled; there’s a high-pitched hum in Billy’s ears. Nothing happens. The body slips a little further over to one side. Grass, and headstones, and the blistered paint on the railings Nothing happens. The bird starts to sing again … Billy comes up to the foot of the grave and looks the body over. He can’t see where he hit him. He reaches round the kerbed edge of the grave, and crouches down, and reaches out and takes hold of the jaw to turn the face towards him. The skin is particularly smooth. It is still warm. It is a child. His greenish eyes are vague and dead.

Contemplating Will, born (as Billy sees it) imperfect, with Perthes disease—which will pain Will throughout his life—Billy thinks,

The boy will turn out fine, better than fine. Billy insists on it. Anything less than this is unacceptable. This is his second chance. He’s paid for it. That boy’s death in Normandy was the down payment. The drip drip drip of guilt, that’s just the interest.

Billy’s unexpressed shame, rage, and grief drag are a weight that he is never really able to overcome. It’s hard for us to judge Billy too harshly, though, as his own father died at Gallipoli before Billy was even born, leaving his young wife to grieve and Billy ever-conscious of the absence, the emotional abyss, in their lives. We also know about the dreams Billy had and gave up, of a kind of glory that had nothing to do with war. Will in his turn is both suffering and deeply flawed; when his daughter Billie runs away to her beloved grandparents (Billy better able to show her the tenderness he couldn’t extend to Will), it’s easy to understand why she wants to get away but also, as she eventually discovers, to believe that it is possible and necessary to forgive.

I liked the ebb and flow in our sympathies across the novel: Baker creates people who seem genuinely complicated. She’s also clever about how she presents their stories, overlapping them as we move through the generations so that the protagonists of one phase take up new roles in the next, their children claiming centrality and then yielding it in their turn. Across the novel this becomes part of the larger story: the pathos of aging, the inevitable shift and change of the passing years. The boy who learned to ride a bike to make deliveries becomes the young man who wins races, then the soldier who rides into occupied France; then he’s a father and finally a grandfather, his bicycle hung up then given away as his son grows up and then grows old—meanwhile his daughter moves into position. We all take our turns at life, the novel reminds us; only to ourselves are we ever or always the main character.

Baker deftly creates unity across her storylines beyond the family relationships. The postcards William sends back from the front in WWI, for instance, cherished by his wife, are saved through the years and finally examined with care by Billie, remnants of a lost love and a vanished life that tell her that “even in the depths of war” he had found beauty as well as suffering in the world. She’s right, we know, because we were with William in 1915. We were with him when he saw Caravaggio’s The Beheading of St. John the Baptist in Malta, before his ship continued on to Gallipoli—and then we see it again in Malta with Billie when she takes up an artist’s residency on the island, neatly closing the loop. The painting makes both William and Billie reflect on the violence they know or fear in their world, as well as the paradox that great horrors can make great art. I think that’s something Baker is experimenting with too: her novel emphasizes both the literal devastation of war and terrorism and their less tangible but equally lasting legacies. This sense of pain and beauty coexisting is, I think, one facet of the “undertow” of the title. On a more domestic level, the tug downward comes from the ever-present knowledge that death is “what’s coming,” that our turns come and then are over. The epigraph from Ecclesiastes draws these things together: “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh. All the rivers run to the sea and yet the sea is not full.” Overall, then, it’s a melancholy book, though there are certainly moments of uplift which, by and large, come from the little things in life:

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 brief, is happiness.

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