Monday 24 February 2014

The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

Desperate to escape the Eastern Front, Peter Faber, an ordinary German soldier, marries Katharina Spinell, a woman he has never met; it is a marriage of convenience that promises ‘honeymoon’ leave for him and a pension for her should he die on the front. 
With ten days’ leave secured, Peter visits his new wife in Berlin; both are surprised by the attraction that develops between them.

 When Peter returns to the horror of the front, it is only the dream of Katharina that sustains him as he approaches Stalingrad. 
Back in Berlin, Katharina, goaded on by her desperate and delusional parents, ruthlessly works her way into the Nazi party hierarchy, wedding herself, her young husband and their unborn child to the regime. 
But when the tide of war turns and Berlin falls, Peter and Katharina, ordinary people stained with their small share of an extraordinary guilt, find their simple dream of family increasingly hard to hold on to.

The Undertaking by Audrey Magee is Atlantic Books' lead debut novel for 2014 and was published on 6 February.

For German soldiers, serving on the Eastern Front, the opportunity of marrying a girl back home gives them 'honeymoon' leave.  For the girl he marries - a war pension should her new husband die whilst serving his country.  Peter Faber and Katharina Spinell enter into this contract of marriage, never having met each other, but both eager to gain the benefits of an unlikely union.    Peter is an ordinary man, a teacher in a small town. Katharina has been encouraged to marry by her parents; a couple who make no secret of their determination to be part of the powerful set, led by Dr Weinart, a leading Nazi doctor, and his wife.

Peter takes his honeymoon leave, and he and Katharina meet for the first time, despite the unorthodox start to their relationship, they find that they are attracted to one another, and by the end of their short time together, they are in love.

Peter returns to war, taking part in the German offensive against Stalingrad, whilst Katharina remains in Berlin; pregnant with their child and looking forward to the time that they can be a real family, in a strong and victorious Germany.  Both of them have no doubt that Peter will return a hero, having helped Germany to win the war.

The contrast between Peter's horrendous experiences fighting against the Russians and Katharina's life of parties and fine food with high-ranking Nazi officers could not be starker.  Peter and his fellow soldiers are starving, they are lice-ridden, they are freezing.  They lose toe nails, they lose toes, they lose lives.  The soldiers battle on, convinced at the beginning that they are on the winning side, but as the weeks pass and their conditions worsen, seeds of doubt set in.  But still, they remain faithful to The Fuhrer.   Katharina, on the other hand only has to worry about how she should eat an oyster, or arranging the best party for her small son's birthday, and where can she find a pretty dress.    

Katharina and her family are reminded of what is really happening when her brother Johannes returns from the front.  He is a broken man, with no sight of the young, enthusiastic man who left Berlin.

The Undertaking is a brutal, no-holds barred story that will shock and stun the reader.  Audrey Magee is a writer of outstanding talent who has portrayed the realism of the battlefields of the Eastern Front with ease. The story is told largely in dialogue which only adds to the brutality and truth of this novel, the reader is thrust immediately into the action, with not a word wasted.

The Undertaking is not an easy read by any means, it can be very uncomfortable at times and not just because of the hardship and deprivation that is portrayed.  No, there is a feeling of despair for the characters, and yes, a twinge of disloyalty too, for caring about these German soldiers.  We, the readers, know the outcome of the war, and it is this that can provoke the feelings of discomfort. These soldiers gave everything, they suffered terrors that are almost unbearable to read about, but they continued as they believed that Germany would be the victor.

This is a novel that deals with loyalty and hope, with bravery and at times with cowardice. It is also a love story in the most unconventional way.   It is a unrelenting story, Audrey Magee is an extremely gifted author, her dialogue-led style of writing coupled with her depth of human understanding is outstanding.

My thanks to Alison of Atlantic Books who sent my copy for review.

AUDREY MAGEE worked for twelve years as a journalist and has written for, among others, The Times, The Irish Times, and the Guardian. She has a Masters in journalism from Dublin City University and a BA in German & French from University College Dublin. She lives in Wicklow with her husband and three daughters. The Undertaking is her first novel. 

For more information, visit her website

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Anne, for a great review; I will certainly add The Undertaking to my list of books to be read. You mentioned 'a twinge of disloyalty', but, once you remove the politics, the people - German, French, English or whatever - are basically all the same with the same emotions and the same needs.