By: Audrey Magee
Format/Source: Hardback; my purchase
In a desperate bid to escape the trenches of the Eastern front, Peter Faber, an ordinary German soldier, marries Katharina Spinell, a woman he has never met, in a marriage of convenience that promises ‘honeymoon’ leave for him and a pension for her should he die in the war. With ten days’ leave secured, Peter visits his new wife in Berlin and both are surprised by the passion 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 Nazi high society, wedding herself, her young husband, and her unborn child to the regime. But when the tide of war turns and Berlin falls, Peter and Katharina find their simple dream of family cast in tragic light and increasingly hard to hold on to.
Reminiscent of Bernard Schlink’s The Reader, this is an unforgettable novel of marriage, ambition, and the brutality of war, which heralds the arrival of a breathtaking new voice in international fiction.
I must’ve picked this book up how many times before committing myself to reading it, lol. I first heard of it when it was longlisted a few years ago for the Baileys Women’s Prize in fiction, the premise sounded interesting.
The Undertaking is a sad and harrowing tale of two people caught up in the geopolitical mess of war and ideology who are forced to do things just to survive. Through the sparce but effective language used by Audrey Magee to convey the story, the reader is struck by the grimness and atrocities of war but also the eerie events happening back in Berlin. Through the eyes of Katharina’s family, you see how ambition would entice someone to side with the Nazis and everything they were doing and what Katharina did to weather everything that was coming against her own desires and her new marriage to Peter. It made for a harrowing and difficult read and to be honest I did not read it at a good time as I was stressed out with offline matters as well.
Despite of the personal difficult I had in reading this book and the mood I was in at the time that I read it, I appreciate what the author was attempting to capture in this story, of the complexities that lay people outside the centres of power faced during the Second World War in Nazi Germany. It was crushing to see how the events around them tested and changed Peter and Katharina and the fragile bond they developed. It was easy to slip into the story from the start so I would recommend picking up this book if you’re a big reader of historical fiction especially around this time period.