Wednesday, 2 April 2014
The Undertaking by Audrey Magee
review by Maryom
Peter and Katharina get married without having met - not even for the ceremony itself. Theirs is a long-distance wedding, supported by a Nazi 'mail order bride' scheme; he is on Germany's Eastern front in Russia, she in Berlin. He gains a desperately needed honeymoon leave; she enjoys the status of being a soldier's wife and the promise of a widow's pension if he should die. Surprisingly, after an initial hiccough, they are drawn to each other.
The honeymoon period is short though and Peter has to head back to the front, now slowly advancing on Stalingrad but the thought of his wife back home gives him something to hold onto and fight for as conditions get worse for him and the entrenched German army...
The Undertaking is a compelling war story, the strength of the book lying in its depiction of WW2 from the standpoint of 'average' Germans, caught up in events they can't control. It seems hard to accept that a couple would enter into marriage without ever having met, choosing a life partner merely on a photograph, but presumably with government backing this was a common thing in wartime Germany. Peter's aims are quite simple - a break from mindless trudging through mud and snow while dodging bombs, bullets and anything else the enemy throws at him. Katharina's reasoning seems more socially motivated; like her father she wants to fit in the Nazi regime, and profit by it if possible.
The most vivid and memorable scenes, perhaps unsurprisingly, are those depicting life for Peter and his fellow soldiers. Like any such group they grumble about their conditions - the weather, the state of their feet, the incomprehensibility of orders, the food, the seeming lack of any over-all strategy and 'command's' use of them as cannon fodder - while still retaining that naive optimism that maintains 'it'll all be over by Christmas'. The reader, of course, knows better and that for both Peter at the front and Katharina in Berlin the future does NOT look bright.
Katharina's story seemed by comparison a little tame and less gripping, though to be honest, I couldn't bring myself to feel a lot of sympathy for her which may have affected my viewpoint. Her actions seem driven by self-preservation and a desire to move up in the world, with little care for anyone else.
The Undertaking is an impressive debut; compassionate without being sentimental, realistic without being gruesome. Audrey Magee is certainly an author I'll be keeping an eye on.
Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Atlantic Books
Genre - adult fiction, WW2,
Buy The Undertaking from Amazon