Summary and book reviews of The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

The Undertaking

by Audrey Magee

The Undertaking by Audrey Magee
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    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Aug 2014, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2015, 228 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite

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About this Book

Book Summary

A much-anticipated debut from a remarkable new talent in Irish fiction—a terrifyingly intimate story of a war marriage caught up in the calamity of World War II

In a desperate bid to escape the trenches of the Eastern front, Peter Faber, an ordinary German soldier, marries Katharina Spinell, a woman he has never met, in a marriage of convenience that promises 'honeymoon' leave for him and a pension for her should he die in the war. With ten days' leave secured, Peter visits his new wife in Berlin and both are surprised by the passion that develops between them.

When Peter returns to the horror of the front, it is only the dream of Katharina that sustains him as he approaches Stalingrad. Back in Berlin, Katharina, goaded on by her desperate and delusional parents, ruthlessly works her way into Nazi high society, wedding herself, her young husband, and her unborn child to the regime. But when the tide of war turns and Berlin falls, Peter and Katharina find their simple dream of family cast in tragic light and increasingly hard to hold on to.

Reminiscent of Bernard Schlink's The Reader, this is an unforgettable novel of marriage, ambition, and the brutality of war, which heralds the arrival of a breathtaking new voice in international fiction.

Excerpt
The Undertaking

1

He dragged barbed wire away from the post, clearing a space on the parched earth, and took the photograph from the pocket of his tunic. He pressed the picture against the post and held it in place with string, covering the woman's hair and neck, but not her face. He could still see that, still see her sullen eyes and sulking lips. He tied a knot, and spat at the ground. She would have to do.

He lay down to soak up the last of the summer sun, indifferent to the swirling dust and grit, wanting only to rest, to experience the momentary nothingness of waiting. But he sat up again. The ground was too hard, the sun too hot. He lit a cigarette and stared into the shimmering heat until he located a rotund figure, its arms and legs working furiously, but generating little speed. The man arrived eventually, grumbling and panting, sweat dribbling onto the white of his clerical collar.

'Why are you so bloody far away?' he said.

'I wanted privacy.'

&#...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The Undertaking is a remarkable piece of writing. Throughout, Magee's language is both unflinching and spare. Similarly to Pat Barker in her World War I novels, Magee's descriptions are stripped of metaphor and simile and her dialogue is crisp and vivid. Moreover, this is one of those rare historical novels that wears its research so lightly that the reader can forget that this is a story set in the past and simply move into the scenes and lives of its characters.   (Reviewed by Kate Braithwaite).

Full Review (622 words).

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Media Reviews

The New York Times Book Review

To write a story that doesn't allow for much sympathy, that keeps readers at a remove from the central characters, is one of the greatest challenges an author can undertake. That Magee succeeds as well as she does is impressive.

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Magee adds layer upon layer of moral complexity...Deeply impressive...Magee gives us an uneasy read, but it is hard to pull away. This is a devastating but quite stunning first novel.

Publishers Weekly

Excellent...Magee provides a heartfelt rendering of regular Germans who have been both complicit in and abused by the Third Reich's power.

Kirkus Reviews

Magee's bare, brutal story is not new, but it is told with a sharply focused simplicity that both exposes and condemns through its understatement.

Library Journal

Starred Review. Highly recommended; this is one of the most riveting accounts of love in time of war that this reviewer has ever read.

The Guardian (UK)

A bold, honest novel about Nazi greed and moral blankness - Magee's cool, precise tone recalls Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin, and, like Heinrich Böll, Magee is haunted by the everyday and the small people who are inseparably part of a great ravagement.

The Economist

A powerful creation. Its denouement, which dramatizes the brutal behavior of Russian troops as they advance into a stricken Germany at the end of the war, is profoundly moving. Ms Magee's willingness to examine the darkest elements of the conflict in a novel that still asserts the redeeming power of love is commendable. We should keep an eye out for her future work.

The Times (UK)

Sweeping, powerful, epic - Magee's writing is fast-moving, with a great visual sense, and conversations so believable that you can almost hear them.

The Independent (UK)

Absorbing, original, eloquent - a poignant reminder of the ferocious struggle for Stalingrad and its aftermath. [A]n impressive debut.

Author Blurb Frances Itani
A powerful and unusually intimate glimpse into lives we rarely read about in fiction—direct, shocking, unflinching.

Author Blurb Colm Toibin
The Undertaking is written with sympathy and skill. The narrative is tense and engaging, filled with complex undertones, impelled by an urgency and a deep involvement with the characters.

Author Blurb Fergal Keane
Audrey Magee is one of the most exciting new talents to arrive on the literary scene. There is an emotional depth to her writing which elevates her to the top rank of contemporary novelists. I read her book with awe and gratitude.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

The Battle of Stalingrad

Berlin, August 20th, 1942

My dear Peter,

The Fuhrer has just announced that we are to take Stalingrad. To hear it from our leader's lips is thrilling. Imagine it, Peter, a German Empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Volga. It is beyond anything I could have hoped for. The man is truly a genius.

And you are to be part of it, Peter. I am very proud of you and promise to stop badgering you about home leave.


The Battle of Stalingrad This is the opening of one of Katherina's letters to her husband Peter in Audrey Magee's The Undertaking. Peter is an infantryman and his wife assures him that the German army will have taken Stalingrad in a couple of weeks. But true to the historical facts, as Peter and his fellow soldiers press forward...

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