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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stunningly good
I'm not sure that it would be accurate to describe Audrey Magee's `The Undertaking' as a story, maybe it's more `theme', tracing the descent of the soul in two connected people, one on the front line, one on the home front, into a kind of hell that they could not have imagined when they started out as, respectively, a village schoolmaster and a bank clerk. The choice of...
Published 9 months ago by Longchamps

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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Bleak and brutal
The literature of war is written by the victors. Later, the victims, and eventually, the vanquished. There is a space in which to explore how ordinary housewives, everyday soldiers and those who conform to socially accepted norms of civilisation behave in times of conflict. Do they gradually succumb to an erosion of those values, becoming cruel and cynical in order to...
Published 5 months ago by leekmuncher


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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stunningly good, 17 April 2014
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This review is from: The Undertaking (Hardcover)
I'm not sure that it would be accurate to describe Audrey Magee's `The Undertaking' as a story, maybe it's more `theme', tracing the descent of the soul in two connected people, one on the front line, one on the home front, into a kind of hell that they could not have imagined when they started out as, respectively, a village schoolmaster and a bank clerk. The choice of Stalingrad for Peter, and east Berlin when captured by the Russians for Katharina, could not have been bettered.

The writing is spare, even bleak, but that suits the circumstances. The fact that the dialogue is not quite realistic must be deliberate, and seems to give the narration a certain distance from reality. But this is wholly effective, because Nazi Germany would have seemed impossible to us if we hadn't known that it happened; so too with the terrible fighting and cruel winter of Stalingrad in 1942, and again when the Russians vented their lust in Berlin in 1945. The style of writing suits those horrendous events perfectly.

`The Undertaking', not an easy or comfortable read, is thoroughly recommended.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Bleak and brutal, 25 Aug. 2014
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This review is from: The Undertaking (Kindle Edition)
The literature of war is written by the victors. Later, the victims, and eventually, the vanquished. There is a space in which to explore how ordinary housewives, everyday soldiers and those who conform to socially accepted norms of civilisation behave in times of conflict. Do they gradually succumb to an erosion of those values, becoming cruel and cynical in order to survive? If so, what do they still hold dear?

This is a story of WWII from two German characters’ perspectives. At first they are strangers, then lovers, then talismanic memories.
Soldier Peter Faber weds a woman’s photograph in the bitter cold of the Eastern Front. Katharina performs the same ceremony with Peter’s picture in Berlin. The undertaking confers favours on both. Peter gets three weeks’ leave from the German army, Katharina gains a soldier husband (and his pension). Yet when they meet in person, their mutual attraction surprises them.

Katharina’s family has connections. Sheltered by powerful friends in the Führer’s inner circle, Peter is co-opted to the cause. It doesn’t take much. Two weeks into his marriage and he’s smashing down doors to drag Jewish children into cattle trucks.

The story is bleak and brutal. Peter’s return to the hopeless advance on Stalingrad through a Russian winter is contrasted with the selfish opportunism and weakness of Katharina’s own family as they enjoy the privileges of Berlin’s protection. Until even that is stripped away.

This is a harsh, grim tale of the horrors of war. The use of dialogue places the reader in the heads of the characters most effectively. But sometimes, that’s the last place you want to be.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Undertaking, 6 Sept. 2014
By 
Kat (Netherlands) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Undertaking (Hardcover)
Finding books told from the perspective of a German man or woman during World War II is quite rare – both in fiction and non-fiction, but I’ve noticed several of them emerging over the last few years. I can imagine various reasons why these subjects weren’t written about, but it is a shame because it’s a subject with so much potential – and Audrey Magee has chosen a story that tells it from two perspectives – Peter and Katharina.

Peter is a soldier on the Eastern front when he decides to marry Katharina before they have even met in order to take honeymoon leave to Berlin. Katharina has decided to marry under the pressure of her parents so she will receive a pension if her husband is killed. Their romance when they do finally meet is rather awkward – their time together is limited and they are in Katharina’s parents’ house. This is perhaps the only part of The Undertaking that didn’t really work for me – they met so briefly, for a marriage of convenience and fell madly in love – I wasn’t completely convinced personally, but in the plot it’s also understandable – conflict abounds.

The vast majority of the book is spent with Peter and Katharina being apart – Peter returns to the grim eastern front at Stalingrad, and Katharina remains in Germany with her disapproving parents. The relationship is maintained through letters, and also through their own longing for each other, which both energises and sinks them simultaneously.

Magee uses rather sparse language to tell the story, and both Peter and Katharina are very economic with their dialogue, but it lends a real sense of setting to the story – the war is stressful, food and energy are severely restricted, and both are simply trying to survive their current circumstances in the hope that the future will bring something better.

Sparse and understated yet moving and captivating, although I didn’t love The Undertaking, it is definitely a book I would recommend to any lovers of historical fiction who are looking for a more unique perspective and storyline.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Undertaking, 12 May 2014
By 
Keen Reader "lhendry4" (Auckland, New Zealand) - See all my reviews
(TOP 100 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Undertaking (Hardcover)
“’Germany is bigger than you, Katharina. Bigger than all of us.’
‘A monster that we feed with our men? Is that what it is, Father, this Germany of yours?’”

Peter Faber, a German soldier in WWII, hates being on the Eastern Front and marries a young woman he’s never met just to get some honeymoon leave in Berlin; she in turn gains the security of a pension should he die as a soldier. In the ten days’ leave that Peter has with Katharina, they find a new balance in their lives, and then Peter has to go back to Russia, where Germany is poised to break through Ukraine across the Eastern Front.

As time goes by, the lives of all in this book are changed irrevocably. Peter, struggling with the Germany army as it finds it way towards the horrific and brutal Battle of Stalingrad in late 1942. Katharina, facing up to life as a married woman whose husband is not there. Her parents, broken over the way Germany’s war has changed their lives. And Dr Weinart, a friend of Katharina’s father, who is in with the powerful in the German echelons, and whose ultimate scheme as part of the new German world is subtly and chillingly signalled throughout the book.

In this book nobody comes out well; all are human in their desires, emotions, fears and actions. But all are battered and bruised by a War; one that seems to herald a new world where Germany will rule all, but into which the reality of potential defeat brings a new bitterness and brutality. We see glimpses of the world in which both Peter and Katharina live, and how even though their lives are so different, one on the Eastern Front and one in Berlin, the stench of War follows them all.

The narrative in this book is terse, precise. There is very little description of people’s feelings, thoughts, emotions – it is all voiced through their narrative, and the brief letters Peter and Katharina are able to send each other. But it is the narrative voices that really offer a new perspective on what could be a familiar tale – abrupt, short, laid bare to the reader. For example:
“’ No, Fuchs, we’re here to clear the communists and Jews from Russia. So that my wife and child have a better future.’
‘We’re here because we’re soldiers, Faber. That’s it.’
‘It’s not that simple.’
‘Make it that f****ng simple.’”

This book is horrific, horrifying, brutal and yet ‘real’. It is a book that haunted me from the first page to the last, and will continue to live with me for a long time yet. Fewer than 300 pages, but it carries the legacy of a whole horror of war with it. A great book and one I am thoroughly glad I read. I hope the author writes more, because I would be more than happy to read more of her works.
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40 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Haunting Read, 22 Feb. 2014
This review is from: The Undertaking (Hardcover)
I admit to an obsession with WW11 related books and The Undertaking is an excellent addition to the list of books I've read relating to the period. For a first book it's a superb & original effort and I was in its grip from the first page to the very last word.
Set in 1941 as the invasion of Russia rolls forward, Peter Faber is a young German soldier craving some home leave. He selects a Berlin woman, Katharina Spiller, from a marriage bureau and they proceed to marry by proxy. He gets his three weeks home leave and she gets the "status" of married woman, the promise of a widows' pension should he be killed & the prospect of fulfilling her duty to Hitler & producing children for the Reich. Important considerations for a young woman in the Germany of the time!
Most of the book is written as dialogue and it moves along at a lively pace - I really liked this style of writing & I liked that the author resisted, what must have been a temptaion, to fill in background details. The sparseness of the text is for me the defining feature of this book.
There is much great writing in this book but I will single out just one particular scene which I found truly heartwrenching & especially memorable as an example - Katharina's brother has been on sick leave with clearly post traumatic stress but the military command insist he is fit to return to the fighting. Katharina & her parents are obliged to deliver him to the train for the Russian front, he is clearly barely conscious & has no idea where he is or where he is going. They have to leave him in the carriage with his gear and walk away knowing he is going to his death - an amazing piece of writing IMO.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the period but also to anyone interested in more that just a simple love story & I really hope someone makes a movie version.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A living, breathing testimony to the horrors of fascism, 24 Sept. 2014
By 
A Common Reader "Committed to reading" (Sussex, England) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (TOP 50 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Undertaking (Kindle Edition)
I often struggle to find good books among the huge numbers being published each month, but I struck gold with The Undertaking, the first novel by Audrey Magee. I enjoyed the gripping and unusual story, the wartime background and the compelling tale of human relationships under pressure.

Peter Faber is a German soldier fighting at the Eastern front, who takes advantage of a Nazi scheme to marry off single women left behind to soldiers serving in the war. The soldiers get three weeks honeymoon leave, and the women get a husband - very difficult to do when all the young men have been conscripted to fight on distant battlefields. Peter sees only a photograph of Katharina Spinell but decides that she will do for him, so a remote marriage service is held and back he goes to Berlin to meet his bride.

It is an awkward start to a marriage, but Peter is welcomed into his in-laws home and within a very few days the young couple seem happy enough with the arrangement. Peter's new father-in-law is well-connected with the local Nazi party and persuades Peter to go out every evening on some horrifying Nazi business, but after a year or so in Russia he seems to be unphased at having to conduct further atrocities at home.

Nazi philosophy has become second nature to the Berlin populace. The Jews "steal" their own property by hiding it from the good German people who believe they are entitled to the spoils of active anti-Semitism. Jewish families matter for little, and there is as little compassion for children as there is for their parents. Evicting Jewish families from their homes has about as much impact on the perpetrators as flushing out a nest of vermin from a nest. Hannah Arendt's phrase, "the banality of evil" perfectly describes the atmosphere in 1940s Berlin.

Peter soon has to return to the front and to leave the wife he has now come to love. His return sees the escalation of horror as the soldiers trudge eastwards through ice and snow, looting and pillaging on the way in a sort of brainless fight for survival. We flash back and forth between Peter and Katherina, the novel somehow teaching us more about the conditions under Adolf Hitler than most textbooks can impart, such is the power of a human story.

At this point I will stop describing the story for fear of spoiling it for others. I will close by saying that this is a very fine novel, showing evidence of much intense and no-doubt harrowing research. Audrey Magee has done a fine job here and richly deserves the reviews she has had in newspapers and other media. She must have immersed herself in the story in order for it to be such a living, breathing testimony to the horrors of fascism and its effect on the human psyche.
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Gripping Debut, 12 Feb. 2014
By 
Susie B - See all my reviews
(TOP 50 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Undertaking (Hardcover)
Audrey Magee's impressive debut novel focuses on Peter Faber, a German soldier fighting at the Eastern front, who makes the decision to marry a woman he has never met in his desperation to leave the fighting for the honeymoon leave he is entitled to on his marriage. Katharina Spinell, the young woman he is to marry, considers this a marriage of convenience, knowing she will be eligible for a widow's pension should Peter be killed in action. Before the couple meet, neither Peter nor Katharina expect to be especially attracted to each other, nor to fall in love, but when they do meet in Berlin at Katharina's parents' home in the October of 1941, they soon find themselves becoming intimately involved with one another. When Peter returns to Russia and learns that Katharina is pregnant, his resolve to survive the war intensifies and this helps him to endure the tortuous conditions ahead of him, but will that resolve enable him to survive?

Meanwhile back in Berlin, Katharina, whose father becomes increasingly involved with an influential Nazi, Dr Weinart, described by her father as a man of great integrity and connections, enjoys a lifestyle that is far removed from her previous existence. However, Katharina is not blind to what is happening around her, as she witnesses the psychological breakdown of her brother, Johannes, who although suffering from intense mental stress is sent back to the front. And as time passes Katharina, who has undertaken the decision to wait for Peter, suffers from the worry of not knowing whether he is dead or alive or whether he is undergoing ordeals of which she can only imagine. And then with Germany's defeat at Stalingrad, the tide turns, and Katharina's life changes irrevocably.

Filled with dialogue which, in this instance, is used very effectively, this is a gripping and involving story where, in addition to recounting the horrendous battle at Stalingrad, the author also deftly contrasts the devastation of war at the frontline to that of the situation at the home front, cleverly showing how humanity can be undermined or even totally removed by the brutality of war. Anyone who knows anything about the Battle for Stalingrad, where the soldiers' greatest enemy was not necessarily the opposing army, but the deadly freezing conditions and extreme lack of food, will realize that parts of this novel make for uncomfortable reading, yet this is a compelling and very readable novel and, as a debut, a rather remarkable one. I shall be interested in reading more from this author in the future.

5 Stars.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars awesome and moving, 22 Feb. 2014
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This review is from: The Undertaking (Kindle Edition)
I could not put this book down. I am now puffy from weeping so it may not suit the over sensitive! This is such an unusual book telling the story of the Eastern Front by a German soldier and his new wife through an arranged distance marriage ceremony. It is so layered and sympathetic to the characters, and brutally honest too, as they struggle to live with their ideology and culture, and of course powerful self interest. The plot is carried largely by dialogue between the characters, families high and low in Berlin, and the soldiers at the front towards Stalingrad as Germany suffers defeat at the hands of the Russians. An amazing read which leaves one enlightened!
Google Audrey Magee to watch a good interview with her as she explains her thinking.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Story of Heart Wrenching Endurance, 1 Mar. 2014
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This review is from: The Undertaking (Kindle Edition)
A book that doesn't hold back on the realities of war. The confusion, the starvation, the degradation, the terrors, the fighting, the injuries, the death and the deprivation. The constant questions of humanity, as to what is the point? What are we fighting for? The striving to try and survive. And the stories of those left at home for ever waiting, years of waiting. Facing the same war in a different way, but equally as scared, degraded, deprived, confused and hauntingly hungry for food and good news.
This story revolves around a German family, their story, their emotions, their hopes, their fears, their sacrifice, their tragedies, their loss. Their humanity.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A gripping account from the German perspective, 29 Mar. 2014
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This is a beautifully researched book. describing the war for.a.family in Berlin, the choices they make, and the decisions of the father to support the party and how his daughter is used as a convenient pawn in their ascent into Nazi society, thus ensuring certain privileges like a nice apartment, good food, parties, all until such time as they lose their home in the.bombing and make some decisions that precipitate their fall from grace and then begins the hard survival without support as Berlin is bombed to bits, basics are scarce and ruthless Russians soldiers arrive. The narrative switches between events in Berlin and the appalling events of the Russian front where the husband of the daughter loses all his comrades and ends up surrendering just to eat, and becomes one of the 3 million Germans who end up.in Siberia, only half of whom return. the harshness of the Russian camps is briefly touched on, and then his return to Berlin ignominious. I could have read more of this story, and highly recommend The Undertaking.
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The Undertaking
The Undertaking by Audrey Magee (Hardcover - 6 Feb. 2014)
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