The Undertaking

The Orange prize for women’s fiction has recently become the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and I feel the marketing has really ramped up this year! It is probably because of this that the long list made it onto my radar. Well, it could be this or it could be my obsession with one of the judges that caused me to pay attention. Caitlin Moran. Enough said.
Moving on from unhealthy obsessions, a few of the books caught my eye including; Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The luminaries – Eleanor Catton, Burial Rights – Hannah Kent and the Undertaking by Audrey Magee. I decided to opt for the latter based on the premise of the book and an urge to read some historical fiction from that particular time (Life after Life – Kate Atkinson paved the way for this I believe).

The Undertaking is set in 1930’s Germany, as Nazi propaganda is at its strongest and fit, young and able men are sent off to fight for their country and a bigger, better future. Heads held high, a proud and noble nation. Due to a woman’s need at the time for stability through marriage and a soldier’s desire for relief from the incessant fighting, both Katharina Spinell and Peter Faber opt to marry, at two separate ‘ceremonies’ and only meet after the marriage is complete. A bank worker and a former teacher come soldier, perfect strangers. The story goes on to follow these two who, whether for strength, personal moral, genuine affection or for appearances, meet, fall in love and continue to write to one another despite both living through very different wars.
Katharina’s Berlin, first experiencing war rations and witnessing daily persecution of the Jewish communities around her, then feeling her city shaken and torn by bombs and finally being invaded by the English, Americans and Russians as Hitler’s Germany falls.
Peter, referred to predominantly as Faber, is at the front of the fighting, having been in Belgium and France and now based on the seemingly hopeless Russian front. He is seen to be experiencing unbearably cold conditions, the daily violence of war and near starvation.
It would not be an overstatement to label some parts of this book as harrowing. It ranges from the glamour of the high society of Berlin to the lows of a hopeless Stalingrad siege, from the hurt of separation to the depravity of loss. Brutal violence, while highly unpleasant to read in places, just further hits home that while this is fiction these situations are not unfounded.

I would find it difficult to recommend this book to people because while it is great, it is written superbly, it has heart and multiple dimensions and characters that break your heart, I wouldn’t want other people to experience the need to weep quite as heavily as I did. I think this is more a reflection of me as emotionally unsteady but if you are looking for a joyous book this is not it. If you are looking for a book with hope and light. This is not it. This book has the feeling of realism to the maximum and a terrifying reminder that the Second World War happened and it was devastating for all involved regardless of what side of the North Sea they happened to be born on.

Magee’s The Undertaking has clearly impressed itself upon the judges of the Baileys Prize as it has made it into the six shortlisted this year and I am rather intrigued to see which book wins. Despite the ever present ‘to read’ list I feel I may need to hit the remaining five on the shortlist.


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