The Undertaking – Audrey Magee

‘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.

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10 thoughts on “The Undertaking – Audrey Magee

  1. Pingback: The Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize Longlist 2014 | The Writes of Woman

  2. This sound like a very compelling read – we’ve got a copy on order for our Bailey’s ‘feature’ at the library and it’s one I expect will fly off the shelf once it arrives.

    I know exactly what you mean with your closing comments as it can seem as if there’s little new to say about the World Wars. That said, two books I’ve read this year have really impressed me. Firstly, ‘Chasing the King of Hearts’ by Hanna Krall, in which a Jewish woman searches for her husband in Nazi-occupied Poland. The story is told through a sequence of beautifully-written vignettes and there’s a lightness of touch to Krall’s prose, despite the harrowing events she describes.

    The second one is Hubert Mingarelli’s ‘A Meal in Winter’ (a novella from the IFFP longlist) which I found stealthily gripping, almost like a theatrical drama in miniature. It’s set in Poland during the Second World War; three German soldiers search for Jews hiding in the countryside and tensions arise during their mission. I can’t do it justice in a few sentences, but it’s well worth seeking out.

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    • Hi Jacqui,

      Thanks for the recommendations. I have the Krall on my wish list – I love Peirene novellas and I know a few of your fellow judges were hoping that this would feature on the IFFP long list.

      The Mingarelli sounds interesting, I’ll add it to the holiday list, which is when I get my reading books by men done!

      Hope ‘The Undertaking’ is popular at the library.

      Naomi

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  3. Great summary & review. Yes, the scenes in Germany were particularly haunting. Although not a violent scene, I was particularly moved and upset by the tired Jewish mother she met in the park and wouldn’t allow to sit next to her. It felt like there should be a natural bond between them as mothers but there was an invisible wall between them.
    I agree it often feels this war is represented so often what else could there be to say, but this book certainly proves there is.

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    • Thanks, Eric. Yes, that scene got me too and each time Katarina went back to the district they’d come from and expected the other women to behave in particular ways towards her.

      The parts that really haunt me though are the scenes during the siege of Stalingrad. I thought Magee did an excellent job of provoking sympathy for soldiers who’d been sold a false promise – just as the British had been almost thirty years earlier.

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  4. I never buy books when they first come out, too expensive, but the review in the paper was so good I got this. I am half way through. I love the horror in its simplicity. It makes it more real and believable. And yes you are right, definitely lots of new things said in this book.

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  5. Oh, also so many little scenes that were so moving. Like queueing for the geese and ducks at Christmas. Or the memory of the visit to the orphanage. Or the way Faustmann snapped at being reminded of his Russianness.

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  6. Pingback: The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist | The Writes of Woman

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