The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

Peter is at the Russian front of Germany’s war, fighting for Hitler. He is desperate for leave, for something to fight for, so he chooses a woman from a group of photographs and heads to Berlin to marry her. Katharina offers him leave and Peter offers her a soldier’s pension should the almost inevitable take place. This is the undertaking.

It is a brilliant premise for a novel. Even if the two like each other, as Katharina and Peter do, how will war affect their transaction? Can two people who barely know each other create a real marriage from a few days’ leave and letters? The novel follows their attempts looking at life as a woman in Berlin and life at the front in Russia. Both lives are fascinating and compromising and ultimately survival manipulates and challenges politics.

Again, the plot reads like a moving and thought-provoking novel and The Undertaking does breathe the painful monotony of war into Peter and Katharina’s lives, but somehow, something falls short. Perhaps it is the weight of expectation I brought to the novel. It came highly recommended and the premise was enough to entice all kinds of imaginings. The end, however, just seems to underwrite all the salacious and illicit intrigue the plotline first initiated. In some ways this must be intentional. This isn’t tabloid history. These are lifelike characters acting in a kind of calculated desperation and sometimes true-to-life storylines don’t follow pantomime emotions. Normally I admire and seek the stark but I’m not sure about where this novel goes and what it is meant to leave the reader feeling. I hoped for more. I understood where Katharina ended, but not Peter, almost as if the novel rushed to a close.

The Undertaking is an interesting read, well written and pleasing in that it takes German perspectives on the Second World War. This is a good book many will, and have already, loved, but it doesn’t quite do it for me.

Next week I’ll be reading Descent by Ken MacLeod followed by My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante and then Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Keep the comments and suggestions coming.

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