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The Undertaking
     

The Undertaking

4.3 4
by Audrey Magee
 

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From a remarkable new talent in Irish fiction comes a terrifyingly intimate story of a war marriage caught up in the calamity of World War II, a much anticipated debut which has garnered prepublication praise from Colm Toibin, Hugo Hamilton, A.D. Miller, and Chris Cleave.

In a desperate bid to escape the trenches of the Eastern front, Peter Faber, an

Overview


From a remarkable new talent in Irish fiction comes a terrifyingly intimate story of a war marriage caught up in the calamity of World War II, a much anticipated debut which has garnered prepublication praise from Colm Toibin, Hugo Hamilton, A.D. Miller, and Chris Cleave.

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.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Louisa Thomas
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. Her terse style, crosscutting between the narratives of Katharina and Peter, generates its own tension and momentum. Although Magee stays on the surface of things, she gives those surfaces traction and texture…
Publishers Weekly
07/14/2014
This excellent debut novel opens on the “stinking hellhole” of the front lines early in WWII, where teacher-turned-Nazi soldier Peter Faber marries a photograph of Katharina. Meanwhile, in Berlin, Katharina marries a picture of Peter. Though the two have never met, their pact “ensured honeymoon leave for him and a widow’s pension for her in the event of his death.” Much to their mutual surprise, the 10 days they are granted to consummate their marriage become intensely passionate, providing both characters with a singular reason to live. Alternating chapters follow Peter on the battlefield and Katharina’s harrowing life in Berlin. Occasional letters between the two reveal private hopes, memory, and torment that add to the already white-knuckle pace of the book. An intimate portrayal of Peter and his fellow soldiers facing defeat in Russia—illustrated primarily through dialogue—shows men at once monstrous and sympathetic, barbaric yet vulnerable. By simultaneously exposing the difficulties Katharina faces at home, Magee provides a heartfelt rendering of regular Germans who have been both complicit in and abused by the Third Reich’s power. Agent: Melanie Jackson Agency (Sept.)
From the Publisher

Praise for THE UNDERTAKING:

Longlisted for the 2015 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction
Finalist for the 2014 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction

"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. Her terse style, cross-cutting between the narratives of Katharina and Peter, generates its own tension and momentum. Although Magee stays on the surface of things, she gives those surfaces traction and textures: The face of grief, dull and yet affecting...We can't see inside Peter and Katharina, but, then again, history is partly the story of people who don't look inside themselves."—Louise Thomas, New York Times Book Review

"A common structural problem for a novel comprising two perspectives is that one tends to be more absorbing than the other. Not so here. Magee skillfully distributes equal weight, meaning equal pathos and intensity...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.”—Malcolm Forbes, Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Irish journalist Magee’s first novel depicts with uncanny perception the rigors of war contrasted with life on the home front. Her compelling but realistic love story presents characters for whom most readers will feel little sympathy because of their unquestioning belief in the German cause, yet the story is all the more fascinating as related entirely from the Nazi viewpoint. Highly recommended; this is one of the most riveting accounts of love in time of war that this reviewer has ever read."—Library Journal (starred review)

“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.”—Helen Dunmore, The Guardian (UK)

“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 Economist

“Sweeping, powerful, epic…Magee’s writing is fast-moving, with a great visual sense, and conversations so believable that you can almost hear them.”—Kate Saunders, The Times (UK)

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

"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."—Colm Toibin

“Absorbing… original…eloquent… a poignant reminder of the ferocious struggle for Stalingrad and its aftermath. [A]n impressive debut.”—Lucy Popescu, The Independent (UK)

"A violent, elegant, unsentimental journey through hell and halfway back. This is an outstanding novel by a writer of huge talent and unusual candour."— Chris Cleave, author of the international bestseller The Other Hand/Little Bee

“This is Audrey Magee’s first book – and a foray into a hotly contested historical event, the Battle of Stalingrad. She makes it fresh through a tight focus on the alternating experiences of Peter and Katharina, cleverly resisting the temptation to describe places and events beyond their necessarily circumscribed viewpoints.Magee makes exciting use of dialogue...the voices shine from the page...The Undertaking is an engaging and beautifully written novel, with an emotional resonance that remains long after you’ve closed the book. It succeeds in doing what only the best historical novels can do – making the past feel present.”—Kate Williams, The Independent (UK)

"A bold and unsettling feat of empathy, all the more daring for its taut, beautifully understated style."—A D Miller, author of Snowdrops

"Audrey Magee is a writer with great understanding for the force of history impacting on the lives of ordinary German people during World War 2. The story of a proxy marriage offers a perfect view into the urgency and magnitude of life with its doomed interior landscape of wartime necessities and moral ambiguities under Hitler's Reich. The Undertaking is a novel of wonderful subtlety and acceleration."—Hugo Hamilton

“An ambitious and atypical first novel.”—The Irish Independent

"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."—Fergal Keane

Library Journal
★ 07/01/2014
"My hand…. May I have it back?" In wartime Berlin, Katharina Spinell has just shaken hands with her new husband, Peter Faber. Their marriage of convenience (they've never met before) was arranged so that he could have a respite from the Soviet front and for her to get a widow's pension if he dies in war. Fortuitously, each finds the other attractive, and within nine months the new bride gives birth to a son. Their "undertaking" is that he will return to her and she will wait for him. The novel oscillates between Peter's travails during the Wehrmacht's march to Stalingrad and Katharina and her parents casting their lot with high-ranking Nazi Party officials. Irish journalist Magee's first novel depicts with uncanny perception the rigors of war contrasted with life on the home front. Her compelling but realistic love story presents characters for whom most readers will feel little sympathy because of their unquestioning belief in the German cause, yet the story is all the more fascinating as related entirely from the Nazi viewpoint. VERDICT Highly recommended; this is one of the most riveting accounts of love in time of war that this reviewer has ever read. [See Prepub Alert, 3/31/14.]—Edward Cone, New York
Kirkus Reviews
2014-07-02
People on the wrong side of historyare given humane consideration in an Irish debut, shortlisted for the Bailey'sPrize, which follows a young German couple married during World War II.Journalist Magee uses clipped,factual prose to deliver her gathering storm of a story narrated from theperspectives of German soldier Peter Faber and bank clerk Katharina Spinell,who, in 1941, agree to a state-arranged marriage (a "Nazi breeding stunt,"according to Peter's father) in exchange for honeymoon leave and perhaps awidow's pension. Peter and Katharina take their vows separately, miles apart,meeting for the first time when Peter arrives for the honeymoon at Katharina'sfamily home in Berlin. To their surprise and relief, the pair fall in love.Peter is the son of a liberal family, but Mr. Spinell is a party follower, inthrall to a sinister Dr. Weinart who infects Peter with his belief in the fatherland.While Peter must soon return to the eastern front, where the savagery andsuffering continue, the Spinells move into a fine new apartment, recently thehome of expelled Jews, and Katharina finds herself pregnant. Then her brother,driven mad by his experience of war, is killed, and Peter, fighting inStalingrad in 1943, discovers his own limits, as the army is surrounded byRussians, and the abandoned soldiers are killed, commit suicide or surrender.Holding on to the talisman of returning to his wife and son, Peter manages tosurvive, as does Katharina, although with the war lost, the full, finaldegradation and humiliation of both the fighting men and their families areinescapable. When the couple finally reunite, the distances each has traveledare starkly revealed.Magee's bare, brutal story is notnew, but it is told with a sharply focused simplicity that both exposes andcondemns through its understatement.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780802122452
Publisher:
Grove Atlantic
Publication date:
08/19/2014
Pages:
304
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.30(d)

Meet the Author


Audrey Magee worked for twelve years as a journalist and has written for, among others, The Times, The Irish Times and the Guardian. She has a Master’s degree in journalism from Dublin City University and an honors Bachelor of Arts degree in German and French from University College Dublin. She lives in Wicklow with her husband and three daughters. The Undertaking is her first novel.

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The Undertaking 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This novel is different: told from the German point of view, written in dialogue, and not a happy read. The novel includes: an arranged marriage, war, death, rape, commitment, children, prisoners, love, and more. Highly recommended! Other fascinating and excellent historical novels are: Whistling Women by Kely Romo, The Partisan by William Jarvis, The Night in Question by Laurie Graham. This novel deserves an A++++++
slvie More than 1 year ago
The characters are well developed, the plot and dialogue are easy to follow and believable. The author is giving the German point of view with the female protagonist in Berlin and the male protagonist on the Russian front during WW II. Terrible times for the both of them and so many others. The story grabs you right from the start and keeps your attention to the end and beyond. Very thought provoking, and well researched, but so heart wrenching and bleak. I've read several books about WW II, but never from the German point of view. I like seeing both sides of a story, not just one side. Even though this is fiction, it is very realistic and compelling. I received this free through Goodreads First Reads for an honest review. I will be following this author in the future. Would recommend for young adult and up, because of graphic violence. OUTSTANDING!
Books4Tomorrow More than 1 year ago
Reading The Undertaking once again made me aware of the ugliness of war. Having married by means of a special long distance ceremony, Peter Faber spends a remarkably romantic bit of honeymoon leave in Berlin with his new wife, Katharina Spinell, now Faber. However, before he returns to the front, his father in law, Günther Spinell, introduces Peter to his nightly occupation. A nightly occupation that ensures a comfortable home, lovely clothes, and food for Katharina and her mother. Written from a German point of view, this book vividly relates the stark reality of soldiers involved on the eastern front. Descriptions of the fighting, the fear of the men, starvation and the insanity that often follows the trauma, bring the reader right into the center of the campaign. Through Katharina's eyes we get a look at life in Berlin. Although they seem to carry on with normal daily life, those left behind in the city are subjected to air raids, food rationing and disease. At first I thought Katharina to be a weak, unprincipled girl who said yes to her father's every whim. Fortunately, as the story progresses, Katharina actually grows a backbone. Slightly stubborn Peter, however, remains headstrong even after a grueling war as well as time spent in a Russian prison camp. The character who truly horrified me, however, is Günther Spinell. Apart from his disgusting involvement with Dr. Weinard and his shady activities, he insists on sending his own son back to war despite the son's very obvious insanity. In Günther Spinell the author created one of the most heartless fictional characters I have ever encountered. The fact that the man uses this ruthlessness to secure luxuries for his family, makes it just that much more abhorrent.  Despite the bleak and rather depressing nature of this story, it gives the reader a realistic look at the woes of German soldiers on the front verses the lives of their women in Berlin.  The Undertaking takes the reader from the fashionable social circles of Berlin to the besieged German troops in Stalingrad and on to the horrors of a Russian prison camp. The unique German point of view makes this book just that much more interesting and in a way, touching. (Ellen Fritz)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago