The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

In brief: Peter and Katharina decide to get married, but they’ve never met. He’s a German soldier in World War II; she’s marrying for security. Can their relationship develop and survive?

The good: Beautifully painted prose creates a rich story.

The not-so-good: Some may not like the ending (but I thought it was perfect).

Why I chose it: Part of the Baileys Prize long list.

Year: 2014

Pages: 250 (eBook)

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Setting: Germany and Russia

My rating: 9.5 out of 10

When I saw The Undertaking on the Baileys Prize long list, I thought, ‘Aha! The book with the nice hat!’ (If you’re a long time reader of my reviews, you will know that my cover interests are piqued by fashion and cosmetics – shallow, but true). But this book deserves to be so much more than a book with a nice hat on the cover – it’s a fantastic story, covering a little known part of World War II that comes alive with Magee’s dialogue, which paints such a detailed image in so few words.

The story is about Peter and Katharina, who have never met but are getting married. He’s on the battlefield; she’s at home in Berlin. It’s a marriage not of love, but of convenience – Peter gets leave from the front line to meet his bride (and presumably consummate the marriage). Katharina gets a widow’s pension if he dies, ensuring her security and possibly an heir for the Motherland. It’s a business deal, but when the two meet, there’s a spark that ignites. Katharina’s mother isn’t particularly enthused by her choice, repeatedly saying she should have married the doctor’s son but her father and his benefactor take to Peter. Soon Peter is helping his father in law and Dr Weinart with some ‘jobs’, which allows him some extra leave. But for the majority of the book, Peter and Katharina are apart. Peter returns to his unit, where he is eventually blockaded in Stalingrad. Katharina fares better, as the family’s apartment is ‘upgraded’ and enjoys benefits from the Weinart family – food and clothes that many don’t have. But when her brother returns from the front for a rest, things change for the worse…

I can’t say that I’ve read many books that deal with the German side of World War II, and at first I felt a little disrespectful to those Australians (and the rest of the Allies) who fought for me so that I can sit here today typing this review. But then I thought that it’s ignorant to be biased and that we’re all humans anyway. The book doesn’t deal with Hitler, the Nazis or the Holocaust directly, just little snippets here and there in the background. It’s more about the day to day life of Katharina, blooming without knowing she’s living in a Jewish family’s apartment and wearing their clothes. She’s charmingly oblivious to the disappearances of others around her and instead, focuses on the benefits – a fur coat! Cake! Peter is becoming increasingly disenchanted with life as a soldier, beginning to question why he’s fighting and why the army isn’t caring for their soldiers as promised. Both Katharina and Peter come to realise the brutality of war later in the novel, when it all stops being a game and they’re forced to grow up – fast.

One of the major strengths of The Undertaking is the dialogue that Magee creates. Much of the story is told in dialogue without the ‘he said/she said’, yet I never had to count back to work out who was talking. That is an amazing feat. What’s also amazing is that so much about not only the characters, but the setting and action is told through short, simple sentences spoken by the characters. This is one of the reasons I think this book is highly worthy of the Baileys Prize shortlist. Another is the ending – I don’t want to reveal the details, because I highly recommend this book for you to read, but it’s perfect. It fits in with what has happened to the characters through the novel and it clearly shows how they have changed. It also defies convention.

It’s hard to believe this is Audrey Magee’s first novel; I can’t wait to see what her next book is like!

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