The Undertaking

Audrey Magee

The Undertaking
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The Undertaking

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 horrors of the front, it is only the dream of his wife 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 extraordinary guilt, find their simple dream of family increasingly hard to hold on to.

A stunning, riveting debut novel in the tradition of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader and Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room, The Undertaking shines an intense light on history and illuminates the lives of those caught up in one of its darkest chapters.

Review

On the Eastern Front in 1941, Peter Faber, a German soldier, is fighting for his country. In a not yet divided Berlin, Katharina Spinell is waiting for a conflict she doesn’t understand to end. Fed up with rations and the banality of something so big it’s entirely incomprehensible, Peter and Katharina – having picked each other from a catalogue of photographs – decide to marry.

A thousand miles apart, their ceremonies take place simultaneously. The arrangement is a good one: honeymoon leave for Peter and a pension for Katharina if he doesn’t return from the front. Such is great fortune in times of war. Unexpectedly, or perhaps out of a desperate need to give meaning to their petty lives, when Peter and Katharina meet they fall in love.

Returned to Russia and surrounded at Stalingrad, Peter wonders if he is more than just cannon fodder while Katharina climbs the social ranks of the Nazi Party in Berlin. Consumed by their individual desires, neither appears to fully understand the ramifications of their actions, or those of the party they blindly obey.

Leaving the specific horrors of the Holocaust out of the story, The Undertaking is an empathetic tale about two people who can’t, or won’t, see the truth of the war or the regime they have wed themselves to – it’s this tension that defines Audrey Magee’s debut. Covering the conflict in Northern Ireland for six years as a correspondent for The Times, Magee wanted to tell a story about people whose experience of war pushed the issues and politics to one side: the result is an unsettling read. Light on historical content, The Undertaking is an unlikely romance that’s heavy on the heartstrings.


Tara Kaye Judah works as a bookseller at Readings St Kilda.

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