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23 February 2014

Audrey Magee: The Undertaking

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Another view of WWII from the German side
Audrey Magee has chosen a very challenging subject for her first book, a "love" story between two very different lonely and ordinary people caught up in the tide of WWII in Germany - soldier and ex-elementary school teacher, Peter Faber and  Katharina Spiller, a single woman living with her parents in Berlin . The story of the Peter's war covers the early days of the Eastern Front in Russia to the terrible days of the siege of Stalingrad. Katharina's war takes her through the hardships of war-torn Berlin and the consequences of the Russian siege and occupation of the city.

Peter Faber is now a soldier and to protect himself has become a callous killer.  Exhausted from war on the Eastern Front he selects Katharina as a wife from a marriage bureau catalogue so he can get three weeks leave from the front for the honeymoon. In exchange Katharina gets the "status" of married woman, the respect of the Fatherland for the possibility of producing children for the Reich and the promise of a widow's pension should Peter be killed. After a proxy wedding, Peter goes to Berlin to meet his new wife. A new life begins for both of them giving them memories that help to sustain them as the war gets worse.

Most of the book is written in dialogue style which is surprisingly gripping and page-turning and brings you very close to the terrible worlds they both live in. Peter gets caught up in the cruelty and devastation of the Russian campaign, and the brutal fighting and freezing and eventually starving conditions at Stalingrad. Katharina cultivates friends with good connections to the Reich to survive the increasing difficulties of living in a rapidly deteriorating Berlin.

The book highlights the concept of duty to the Reich when the family are faced with the prospect of sending Katharina 's brother, still suffering from shell-shock, back to the Eastern Front to face almost certain death. It also stresses the importance to the German people of support for the Fatherland where it was considered better for a soldier to have died as a hero than surrender as a coward to save his life.

It isn't possible to say that you will enjoy this book because of the dreadful subject matter. What I can say is that when I had started the book it was hard to put in down. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in reading another view of the time but also to anyone interested in something much more that just a simple love story. I congratulate Audrey Magee on an excellent and memorable début  novel.

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