Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Monday, 16 December 2013

The Undertaking - Audrey Magee

In the midst of World War II, Peter Faber and Katherina Spinell embark on an usual marriage – they haven’t even met. Peter takes this step to get ‘honeymoon’ leave from the Eastern front, and he travels to Berlin and meets his wife and her family for the first time. For Katherina, it offers a war pension should he die. Before the war a schoolteacher in Darmstadt, now he is fighting in Russia, for his homeland Germany. Despite the unconventional manner of their union, the pair do find they like and indeed come to love one another, making it difficult for them both when Peter has to return to Russia.

The narration moves between Peter’s horrendous time in Russia as his division moves towards Stalingrad, and Katherina’s life in Berlin, where she enjoys a relatively comfortable existence for a time – this is thanks to her father’s close acquaintance with the powerful Nazi Dr. Weinart, who he almost slavishly complies with, even to the point of not defending his own war-damaged son Johannes in front of him. When the war starts to go against Germany, though, both of them find themselves still apart, and in dire circumstances.

The author writes with brutal honesty of the appalling conditions the soldiers endure, and conveys the different views amongst them about what they are actually fighting for, so that as a reader we can conceivably sympathise with Peter despite the outrage we feel at the regime he was fighting to protect. Audrey Magee also convincingly portrays the turbulent change in fortunes for Katherina and her family.

Throughout the novel, much of the narrative is written as dialogue; I quickly got used to this style and thought it worked very well here; the author lets the characters’ thoughts and decisions speak for themselves, directly, rendering their emotions and experiences vividly to the reader.

The Undertaking is a stark, intelligent and powerful debut novel that confronts harsh realities and depicts two ordinary people complicit in terrible actions.  I was impressed by it and I’d love to read more by this author. There is plenty here for reading groups to debate and get their teeth into – morality, greed, war, damage, and love.

Published by Atlantic Books - 6th February 2014
Originally reviewed for Newbooks magazine


  1. This sounds impressive. The words powerful but a little offbeat come to mind. The cover actually exudes a harrowing sense of desperation.

    1. I thought it was an impressive book for a debut novelist Brian. I agree about the cover, it gives an insight into what it was like for Peter in Russia. Thanks very much for your comment.

  2. This does sound good, I really like the fact that the author doesn't shy away from describing the appalling conditions that the soldiers endure

  3. The premise of this sounds really interesting. And I do love books related to war. I like the sound of it being written mostly through dialogue - when it's done well, that can have such a massive impact.


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