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The Undertaking Hardcover – 6 Feb 2014

4.3 out of 5 stars 132 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Books; Main edition (6 Feb. 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1782391029
  • ISBN-13: 978-1782391029
  • Product Dimensions: 15.6 x 2.6 x 21.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (132 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 310,301 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


Sweeping, powerful, epic --The Times

Brutal but brilliant... Full of heart-pounding suspense... Magee offers an insight both into the deprivation experienced by ordinary soldiers and the excesses of those in power... An impressive, even stunning debut' --Sunday Times (Ireland)

An engaging and beautifully written novel, with an emotional resonance that remains long after you've closed the book. It succeeds in doing what only the best historical novels can do - making the past feel present --Independent

A novel made all the more harrowing by its extreme readability --Observer

A violent, elegant, unsentimental journey through hell and halfway back. This is an outstanding novel by a writer of huge talent and unusual candour. --Chris Cleave

The Undertaking is written with sympathy and skill. The narrative is tense and engaging, filled with complex undertones, impelled by an urgency and a deep involvement with the characters. --Colm Tóibín

A bold and unsettling feat of empathy, all the more daring for its taut, beautifully understated style --A.D. Miller

A bold and unsettling feat of empathy, all the more daring for its taut, beautifully understated style --A.D Miller

I read her book with awe -- Fergal Keane

Justifies all the hype --The Scotsman


‘The Undertaking is immensely readable ... Magee offers an insight into the deprivations of ordinary combatants as well as exploring the excesses of those in power. It’s an impressive debut.’ (The Independent) --Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Audio CD.

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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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By Antenna TOP 500 REVIEWER on 23 Dec. 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
The undertaking is Peter Faber's marriage "in absentia" to Katharina Spinell, a Berlin bank clerk whom he has yet to meet. The motives are mercenary on both sides: he wants ten days' leave from the Russian front which makes more sense in the following chapters recounting his ordeals in Kharkov and Stalingrad, whereas she is attracted by the prospect of his war pension if he dies. As loyal followers of the Reich, accepting Nazi propaganda without question, they are happy to fall in with Hitler's half-baked scheme for keeping up population growth at the height of battle. To their surprise, although perhaps partly because of the unreal situation, they develop the mutual love which motivates them to survive many vicissitudes.

Apart from this spark of hope, "The Undertaking" pulls no punches when it comes to the portrayal of war, as the pair begin to realise, in their very different situations, that German soldiers are not invincible against an inferior foe, the Russians are not the useless, cowardly peasants they have been led to expect, and the war will not be a rapidly won victory. It takes a while for the penny to drop with two main characters who are portrayed in a realistic rather than flattering and heroic light. Without any compunction, Katharina joins her callous parents in occupying a luxurious flat from which a Jewish family has been driven; on his "honeymoon", Faber takes part without question in the nocturnal eviction of Jews organised by the sinister fixer Doctor Reinart and he persists in believing a fellow soldier is a communist of doubtful loyalty because he is Russian - unable to grasp the tragedy that, as a Russian born in German territory, the poor man belongs nowhere.
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Format: 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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