The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

the undertakingIn some respects this is a standard war love story. The war bride and the solider spend a short period together, only to be parted for many years and hardships. However unlike most war love stories it is set in Germany, rather than in one of the allied nations, usually England. We get to see the war from the perspective of ordinary Germans, swept along by the power and propaganda of the Third Reich, caught up in events beyond their control.

Faber is a man searching to understand why he and his friends have been sent to war. He marries for no greater reason than to get honeymoon leave. Katharina wishes to be free from her family, and to be accepted. She marries for no greater reason than a desire to have her own house, and if her husband dies well she’ll have a widows pension.

After he marries Faber proclaims to believe in all the Nazi propaganda, he tells himself he is doing it for his wife and child, but it is clear he is just trying to understand how he and his friends ended up at war, on the eastern front, at Stalingrad. If you’ve even a basic knowledge of WW2 history you’ll know how that is going to end. Katharina and her family put on the face of being staunch Nazis. The reality is quite different. Katharina’s parents are lower middle class social aspirants. Her father is like the weak kid on the schoolyard who sidles up to the school bully in exchange for protection and benefits, though he can’t protect his own family. As the war turns against Germany, while her father keeps up the pretence, out of fear or some disillusioned belief it will all come good, Katharina though begins to wonder if the sacrifices are worth it.

It’s hard to say much more about this book without spoilers. We see the characters beliefs change and shift as the war moves towards the close. There are some disturbing scenes. When Katharina and her family move to a new apartment, clearly once belonging to Jews, all their belongings still there. When Faber and his friends throw Russian families out in the snow and eat their food. They are hard to read and you wonder how these perfectly decent people can go along with such things. However these are the realities of the war, of that time. Despite events like this we care deeply for the characters. And such harsh events are contrasted by touching moments. The way Faber and his friends look out for each other. Katharina looking after her shell shocked brother or the lengths she will go to to take care of her son. None of them asked for this. They are pawns in a much bigger game.

At the beginning while I enjoyed it, and it was an easy read I didn’t feel it was anything special, but by the end I couldn’t put it down and was practically screaming at the book. It certainly brings something new to the war love story genre.

Rating: 4/5

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