A Different WWII novel: The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

UndertakingI’ve wanted to read this book since it was longlisted for the 2014 Women’s Price for Fiction. It took a little while for it to arrive at my library, but it was worth the wait. World War II is not an uncommon subject matter, but this book offers an approach different from the war novels I’ve read in recent years.

Peter Faber is fighting on the Russian Front, desperate for a reprieve. Katharina Spinell lives in Berlin with her parents, desperate to start her own life away from them. With the help of a marriage bureau, they get married without knowing each other so that he can get a 10-day leave from the front and she can get his pension should he get killed. Surprisingly, it only takes a few days for Peter and Katharina to fall in love and when Peter returns to Russia, Katharina has become pregnant.

With Peter’s departure from Berlin, the book splits into two narratives, one following Peter and the other focusing on Katharina. While both narratives are almost completely composed of dialog, the stories they tell are very different.

Peter returns to Russia, and though no one wants to admit it, there is no chance that the war will be over “by Christmas,” as predicted by German propaganda. There is also no chance that Peter will get leave to visit Katharina and his newborn son, and soon it is winter again, hitting hard as Peter and his comrades fight their way to Stalingrad, where they will partake in one of the bloodiest battles of human history, the turning point in the war on the Eastern front.

Meanwhile, in Berlin, Katharina and her parents live a rather comfortable life. Because of the connections Katharina’s father has to the SS, soon after Katharina’s marriage, all three move into a recently vacated, spacious apartment, quickly appropriating what has been left behind by deported Jews. They have a Russian servant and extra food, and it is not until late in 1944 that they have to deal with the reality of war.

As I mentioned earlier, most of this book is written as dialog. On the one hand, it prevented me from really getting into the head of any of the characters. Often, I had no idea what a person was thinking or why a person acted a certain way. On the other hand, the horror of some of the events had an even greater impact on me precisely because it was talked about in a mundane or flippant way. A casual conversation often revealed appalling actions—be it in Berlin or in Stalingrad. It was startling to realize that there was no need to know what a person was thinking simply because there was often no thought behind an action.

I think it speaks to Magee’s ability as a writer that she has created a number of unlikeable characters for whom I nevertheless felt sorry. It was sad that even though both Peter and Katharina stay true to their undertaking—to wait for each other and reunite in Berlin—in the end, they fail quite decisively. It is even questionable whether they have learned anything from their experiences. Overall, this is an impressive first novel that has made me think about how sometimes a thoughtless choice can have long-lasting results that can reach much further than we would have thought possible.

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8 comments

  1. Thanks for the review on this book – I have been curious about it since being longlisted for the Women’s Prize. I love war novels, and it sounds like a good one.

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