The Undertow

Knopf. May 2012. c.352p. ISBN 9780307957092. $25.95. F
Billy Hastings. This name will be passed down for four generations, as each owner tries to live life to its fullest—some with success, others not. Making her U.S. debut, British author Baker (Offcomer; The Mermaid's Child; The Telling) opens up this touching family drama by introducing us to the first William Hastings and his young bride, Amelia, weeks before he ships off in the navy in 1914 and leaves Amelia pregnant. His son, Will, takes part in the D-day landing of World War II. The third Will becomes an Oxford professor in the 1960s, and his daughter, Billie, is an artist in contemporary London. The unusual narrative structure—short chapters told by different main characters and titled by area, date, and sometimes specific times so the actions described can be literally hours, days, or years apart—is ingenious because readers at times feel they are truly experiencing the story as it takes place. However, it is also a drawback since it is sometimes difficult to get a good sense of a particular character.
VERDICT With their masculine pride pushing them to make bad decisions, the three male Billys tend to be a bit unsympathetic to readers, regrettably. Still, Baker's fine writing, the quick-flowing story line, and the excellent ending make this first-rate novel a good choice for fans of family sagas and literary British fiction.

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