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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 23 December 2014
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. Yet the reader knows that Faber and Katharina will be punished more than they deserve, since Faber is on a march to Kharkov and Stalingrad, while Berlin is destined to be looted by drunken Russians who will perpetrate mass rape out of revenge.

The author is quite clever in glossing over historical details which does not matter, as she seems true to the spirit of the times: the moral confusion, the reduction of human beings to a basic animal state under duress, and the inescapable hand of chance. Gripping but bleak, well-constructed with some excellent dramatic moments and insights into the main characters' thinking, the story reaches a well-judged conclusion, which leaves the reader with a good deal to mull over.

"The Undertaking" is in my opinion superior to a number of recent novels which have received much more attention and hype.
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on 19 July 2017
A wonderful read. Rich in its emotional language and with a very interesting construction and composition. The contrast between the inhumanity of war and the emotional tenderness of the main characters send a strong and powerful message to the reader.
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on 26 April 2017
Brilliant book. Very very pacy.,It pulls no punches and as someone who has visited Volgograd or Stalingrad as it was, I can vouch for its authenticity and brutality. A delicious evil twist at the end.
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on 24 May 2017
Very happy with this book excellent read also happy with the postage arrived before due date
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on 19 August 2015
A first class read. 10 out of 10.
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on 15 July 2014
World war 2 from the German viewpoint. Brilliant and shocking. Unstated style of writing just adds to the impact.
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on 17 April 2014
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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on 25 August 2014
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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on 29 March 2017
Wow !
A short,but excellent book .well written & a different take on Germany & war .
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on 6 September 2014
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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