With the loss of the great English novelist Anita Brookner, we are most fortunate to find a near equivalent in the quality of her writing and the penetration of her analyses in Jo Baker, whose very recently published A Country Road, A Tree is one of 2016’s best offerings in fiction.  I first read Baker’s The Undertow, some years ago, which was a family saga about four generations of one English family all called Will or William or Bill (and finally Billie, the first female of the line under discussion).  The Undertow is a brilliant description of four people, three from the lower middle class, one who’s made it into the upper middle, but Baker is brilliant in finding family characteristics which repeat through the generations; her writing is emotionally taut but, like a flood wall, the emotions contained could easily burst forth.  The second Baker novel I read, Longbourn, which is currently being made into a film, looks at the English country house in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, but mostly at those “downstairs”, rather than “upstairs”.  The interrelationships amongst the serving classes, and their occasional interactions with the family itself are astutely rendered and often very, very moving.

Now Jo Baker moves into very fertile territory for recent British and European history.  Actually using the Irish writer Samuel Beckett’s biography, and Beckett as her lead character/narrator/protagonist, Baker examines Europe’s plunge into World War II from Beckett’s point of view, and those of his often literary, artistic and musical friends in Paris. Although Beckett could easily have moved back to his home country, Ireland, and waited out the war there, his loyalty to his friends in Paris won’t allow him to opt out of the war thus.  When Beckett meets a Frenchwoman named Suzanne, their relationship becomes the underpinning of the entire novel, and Baker’s astute observations about Paris during the war years , and about the intensity of friendships, is as finely written as anything I’ve read in recent literature.  Baker is shrewd enough to focus on certain privations during the war: she writes about hunger beautifully, about hurt feet and falling apart shoe leather on the many escapes that Beckett and Suzanne will have to make through France in order to survive.  Beckett’s early involvement with part of of The French Resistance puts him at constant risk (often to the annoyance of Suzanne)–and Baker’s descriptions of Suzanne’s ambivalences about heroism are as sharp and as sympathetic as the author’s sympathies towards Beckett’s daily courages are.  If Beckett’s the romantic of this pair, Suzanne is the more practical, and the tenuous balances in their relationship probably keep both parties from falling off an emotional cliff.  And Baker introduces the novelist James Joyce into her novel, an egotistic, somewhat monstrous presence whose wide network of friends and promoters keep him amongst the privileged during the war (he’s just published Finnegan’s Wake, and, because of the Nazi Occupation of Paris, the book’s publication is barely noticed).  These kinds of touches on Baker’s part make this novel superior in every detail without getting bogged down in any one. The novel is thus crafted to perfection; Baker knows when to make small events magnified, and huge events minor; that’s the way most people think during crises.

When Beckett does return to Ireland after the war ends, he insists on returning to France to do volunteer work in setting up health care facilities in Northern France (we bump into the same places as in the spectacular novel The Light You Cannot See in these sections).  And when Suzanne and Beckett remeet, Baker writes splendidly about their fatigue, their reticence with one another: they had been through too much together to feel as close as we hoped that they might, and this is another of Baker’s magnificent and spot on observations about how people survive wars.  When Becket hands Suzannne a bag of pears, which she hasn’t seen or tasted in five years, the luxuriance with which she eats two of them is incredibly moving.  When Baker, too, describes aspects of either the French, the Spanish or the Irish landscapes, her writing veers into pure romantic poetry at its most sublime.  Baker writes with an acuity rarely seen outside of certain very superior English writers, such as the late Brookner, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, the late Iris Murdoch, and the up and coming novelist Tessa Hadley. Hadley and Baker are relatively less known than the others, but both write with exceptional ease and intelligence, and I expect both to come to the forefront of the world’s best writers within five years.

A number of superb novels have been published in the last few years about life in England or France on the eve of, or during, both World Wars, from Francine Prose’s magnificent and brilliantly researched The Chameleon Club, l932, to Anthony Doerr’s The Light You Cannot See, and now in A Country Road, A Tree, amongst others.  Of one thing, we may be sure: the ability to survive wars involved depths of levels of character that we may not possess these days (not that we would want this tested), and the concepts of sharing and trusting seem almost antique in our cynical, overbranded world, which emphasize deficits in character, not strengths, whiny victimhood, not courage.  And books like Baker’s remind us of what brilliant and flawless writing can be, and why we can be so greatly moved by such an emphasis on quality and high standards.

Jo Baker’s A Country Road, a Tree, is a definite best book of the year, and I urge lovers of literature to run out and read it.  Baker’s already a master at her craft.

–Daniel Brown

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