The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

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The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: Depicting the German people and army during the last years of WWII at home and in battle, in a very close, personal way with a narrative that packs the punch of a Panzer division.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: February 2014
Publisher: Atlantic Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1782391029

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Shortlisted for Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction 2014

Peter Faber has decided to become part of the new Nazi initiative. He will marry Katharina Spinell, a woman he won't even meet till their honeymoon. In return he'll receive honeymoon leave from the Russian front while she will secure a widow's pension should anything happen to him, hopefully providing the Reich with one or two more Aryan babies on the way. Peter may not be the son-in-law Katharina's parents envisaged but their disappointment is blunted by their luxurious lifestyle under the patronage of the sinister Dr Weinart. However, this is still wartime and Peter must eventually return to Russia and whatever fate awaits him.

This, journalist Audrey Magee's debut novel, isn't long but is both beautifully and cleverly written. In fact, despite it only being January as I write this, I'm laying odds that this will definitely be one of my favourite books of 2014, and perhaps one of my favourites ever.

If you don't know about the part Russia played in the final days of the Third Reich, then the resulting extra layer of suspense will be a treat as you're absorbed by Audrey's words. The rest of us know the story backwards and could never be affected by yet another retelling, right? Wrong!

The author writes in a way that will draw even the most jaded war expert into the story's flow. Her chief weapon is an ability to bring a vast historic canvas down to individual terms. We aren't talking the 6th Army; we're talking Peter and his mis-matched comrades. We aren't focussing on all the Nazi-compliant families; we're seeing how compliance affects Katharina, her parents and brother. In this way even historical-everyone-knows facts become stomach punches because these aren't generic stereotypes; these are people we come to care about. (Dr Weinart is exempt from that statement!)

The personal tensions of an army at war are also evident as Peter and his fellow fighting patriots (at least to begin with) weigh up the pros and cons of the party line versus survival. Indeed, we glibly agree that war changes people but in these chapters we witness war changing ideas, principles, dreams and, ultimately, what people will settle for.

Audrey's writing style concisely punches the messages home in an incredibly effective way. She doesn't exaggerate, just tells it simply encouraging our imagination rather than expecting us to become spectators to the overly dramatic outpouring of someone else's. It works as we understand the origins of the Spinell's wealth and the ultimate result of Dr Weinart's nocturnal expeditions without having them spelt out.

Here's a radical suggestion: would it be a good idea for The Undertaking to become an 'A' Level text? Its lesson certainly stands up to examination as robustly as Audrey's composition. In fact the lesson is a fundamental one: it's easy for us to be subsumed in this war's jingoistic, smug victory but this story reminds us we're no different from anyone else, even 'the enemy'. In the end war can be reduced to each person's fight for what they believe in while remaining as humane as possible. Some Germans may have managed the last bit better than others, but perhaps we need to start understanding that the vast majority of them tried as hard as we would with, I'm betting, similar results.

Thank you very much to Atlantic Books for providing us with a copy for review.

Further Reading: If this has piqued your interest in the Stalingrad campaign, we definitely recommend The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell.

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Booklists.jpg The Undertaking by Audrey Magee is in the Top Ten Literary Fiction Books of 2014.


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