I remember when Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Julian Barnes were still the angry young men of English literature.  All three are now in their sixties, and their early promise has more than panned out.  But England is still giving us young writers of great merit; two of them, Jo Baker and Harriet Lane, have new novels out, and both are excellent.

Jo Baker’s The Undertow is her first novel to be published in America, although several others have already been so in England. The Undertow is a four-generation saga (I am a bit of a sucker for these types of novels), and The Forsythe Saga always comes to mind as England’s greatest contribution to this literary genre, just as Buddenbrooks is the same for midEuropa.

Baker begins her work with a working-class couple, barely married when husband goes to war (WWI) and sends her postcards from wherever he lands, many from Malta, where he is killed by a German torpedo.  They have had a son (each generation is named some version of William, a clever trope which ties them together ).  Amelia, the widow, raises son Billy on her own; his talent for bicycling leads him nearly to the 1936 Olympics, but his fear of the more affluent competitors stops his progress; Baker manages this territory with great aplomb, sensitivity, and a lack of rancor.  Billy marries and his son Will is the first to go to university; his daughter, Billie, becomes an artist, and is the first whose parents divorce.

This short plot summary cannot , however, describe the subtle emotional states Baker paints, and of the interrelationships of the generations.  That each generation becomes more affluent, however, doesn’t necessarily make them more content, and this construct is part of what makes Baker’s novel move from good to near great.  We find ourselves sympathetic to each generation, and understand each character because we know the families in which each grew up. This is no simple task. The most simple of objects reappear, saved by one generation and found by the next, so that when Billie, the artist, lands an artist’s residency in Malta, without knowing that her great-grandfather was stationed and killed there, and she walks the same streets, enters the same church, and sees the same views, the reader is immeasurably moved. It’s a very successful plot device, and Baker is gentle and kind to each of the protagonists, and though there are family rifts and arguments, they are managed without the hysteria and psychological blame so common in life and fiction since the 1960s.  Baker makes discovery magical, and objects emotions.

The lack of melodrama in this novel is one of its great achievements; it is not a soap opera or a tear-jerker.  Baker’s understated writing style and sympathy towards people’s economic circumstances are admirable.  Each generation mistakes the economic straits of the one before for emotional strictures, and each is wrong:  that Baker finds the nobility in each of her characters is an unusual strength.  She does not romanticize poverty, but she does make earlier generations psychologically tougher than the later ones.  She includes some strong male friendships but most of her characters are able to maintain their inner strength when alone.  In her penultimate paragraph of this very long novel, she writes: “There will be illness, and there will be death, and through it all there will be love”.  Standing alone, the sentence may not resonate as it does at the end of the novel, but Baker does not see life as pointless, and an existential hope pervades the novel, which may be nearly a masterpiece.

Harriet Lane’s first novel, Alys, Always, picks up where Anita Brookner left off (where, oh where, did Brookner go?). Like Brookner, Lane presents us with one (single) woman, who works in the Books section of a failing newspaper. Like Brookner’s protagonists, she is a watcher, an observer of other’s foibles, weaknesses, vanities, but wonders when anyone will notice her (Brookner’s first novel was titled Look At Me, later republished and retitled The Debut). Frances, our narrator, happens on a car accident and is the last person alive to speak with the woman dying in the car by the side of the road, but is aware from her accent and the make of the car that the dying woman is upper class.  When the family of the dead woman insists on meeting Frances to help provide the idiotic closure so common in today’s psychology of death, Frances finds every opportunity to ingratiate herself into this
family, working through the youngest child, a daughter of great need and great narcissism.  Frances succeeds in maneuvering her way into this unit, the father of which is a well-known writer.  The observations about her changing status, and the effects on her personal and professional lives, are very keen and astute. Alys, Always is an astute novel of manners, of a sort, and very much captures the narcissism and solopsism of our times.

England is still producing great writers.

–Daniel Brown

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