Original Perspective: The Undertaking

The UndertakingThe Undertaking by Audrey Magee

I was lucky enough to win a copy of this novel in a competition run by the Bailey’s Prize. I made sure I found time to finish it before the June 4 deadline when the winner will be announced!

This is a story about ordinary Germans in WW2 who do what they can to make the war tolerable. Peter, a German soldier on the Russian front, marries Katharina, a woman he has never met. It is purely a marriage of convenience. He will get leave for the honeymoon and she will be guaranteed a widow’s pension should he fail to return. Katharina’s father finds his own way to make the war more manageable for his family by endearing himself to the well connected Nazi Dr Weinart.

First Impressions: The author writes in sharp prose making this a very readable novel. However, at times the writing was so crisp and devoid of feeling that I felt somewhat detached from the story but I suspect this is how many of the characters felt.

Highlights: The most memorable events in this novel are the most depressing – the stories of both Katharina’s brother and son, the tactics used by the Russians to lure defectors, the fragile minds of soldiers surrounded at Stalingrad… I liked the way the author didn’t date each chapter. Subtle clues would indicate how much time had passed. I had mixed feelings about the ending but the small ray of hope and optimism for the future was wonderful.

If I was an editor: I would perhaps make this succinct novel even shorter. Katharina’s family’s rise to privilege thanks to Dr Weinart didn’t need so much detail, particularly Katharina’s awe at the luxuries now available to her. I didn’t think this needed to be covered in such great detail in both the prose and her letters to her husband. Perhaps these extra pages could then be filled in with detail about Peter’s missing years…

Overall: Magee has managed the almost unthinkable by writing an original WW2 novel that stands out in a flooded market.

The Undertaking: 4 stars


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