‘I had no choice.’
‘We all have choices…’
Peter Faber is in need of a wife. The reason Peter Faber is in need of a wife is that he wants leave from the army. It is 1941 and the German push to take Stalingrad is underway.
Through a marriage bureau, Peter chooses Katharina Spinelli because he likes her hands. She has signed up to the bureau because
‘My mother said it would be a good idea. A bit of security, I suppose. The title of wife. Other girls are doing it.
As Peter says his vows in front of a chaplain and three drunk comrades, Katharina does the same, a thousand miles away in Berlin, in front of her parents. Her father approves of Peter – a soldier fighting on the front – while her mother wishes she’d married one of the other four men she was offered, ‘a doctor’s fat son’.
While Peter’s home on leave, Katharina’s father introduces him to Doctor Weinart, a member of the SS and one of Hitler’s inner circle. Weinart has Peter’s leave extended so Peter can join him rounding up Jews.
The following nights, he smashed soup tureens and china clocks, irritated that he had to leave Katharina to drag snivelling children from attics and cellars. He shouted and screamed at them, struck their legs and backs with the butt of his gun, slapped them across the face when they took too long moving down the stairs, more comfortable with howls of hatred than pleas for mercy.
Katharina was always waiting for him afterwards, always warm. On the seventh day, as the sun rose, he took a wide band of wedding gold from an old woman. Later he slipped it on his wife’s finger.
‘I need you, Katharina.’
Surprisingly for both Katharina and Peter, they find there’s real attraction between the two of them and when it’s Peter’s time to return to the front he is reluctant to go.
The story then divides in two as we follow Katharina and her family in Berlin and Peter and his unit on their journey to Stalingrad.
The Undertaking is mostly told in dialogue, the sentences simple, conveying just the amount of information needed. It’s a powerful technique which places the action directly in front of the reader and allows us to observe and make our own judgements.
By taking a detached tone, Magee shows her characters’ behaviour and attitudes without placing any authorial judgements on them; this makes for some uncomfortable moments. You would expect the sections that focus on Peter and his colleagues in Stalingrad to be grim – and they are, there are some incredibly upsetting events – but it was the goings on back in Berlin that made me squirm on several occasions.
I often think that both World Wars have had so many pages dedicated to them that there can’t be any more angles to take and again and again writers prove me wrong. Audrey Magee is the latest of those writers. The Undertaking is a powerful novel focused on two very unpleasant scenarios that destroy a family. I would be delighted to see it on the Bailey’s Women’s Prize shortlist.
Thanks to Atlantic Books for the review copy.