Desperate to escape the Eastern front, Peter Faber, an ordinary German soldier, marries Katharina Spinell, a woman he has never met; it is a marriage of convenience that promises ‘honeymoon’ leave for him and a pension for her should he die on the front. With ten days’ leave secured, Peter visits his new wife in Berlin; both are surprised by the attraction 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 the Nazi party hierarchy, wedding herself, her young husband and their unborn child to the regime. But when the tide of war turns and Berlin falls, Peter and Katharina, ordinary people stained with their small share of an extraordinary guilt, find their simple dream of family increasingly hard to hold on to…
Finding books told from the perspective of a German man or woman during World War II is quite rare – both in fiction and non-fiction, but I’ve noticed several of them emerging over the last few years. I can imagine various reasons why these subjects weren’t written about, but it is a shame because it’s a subject with so much potential – and Audrey Magee has chosen a story that tells it from two perspectives – Peter and Katharina.
Peter is a soldier on the Eastern front when he decides to marry Katharina before they have even met in order to take honeymoon leave to Berlin. Katharina has decided to marry under the pressure of her parents so she will receive a pension if her husband is killed. Their romance when they do finally meet is rather awkward – their time together is limited and they are in Katharina’s parents’ house. This is perhaps the only part of The Undertaking that didn’t really work for me – they met so briefly, for a marriage of convenience and fell madly in love – I wasn’t completely convinced personally, but in the plot it’s also understandable – conflict abounds.
The vast majority of the book is spent with Peter and Katharina being apart – Peter returns to the grim eastern front at Stalingrad, and Katharina remains in Germany with her disapproving parents. The relationship is maintained through letters, and also through their own longing for each other, which both energises and sinks them simultaneously.
Magee uses rather sparse language to tell the story, and both Peter and Katharina are very economic with their dialogue, but it lends a real sense of setting to the story – the war is stressful, food and energy are severely restricted, and both are simply trying to survive their current circumstances in the hope that the future will bring something better.
Sparse and understated yet moving and captivating, although I didn’t love The Undertaking, it is definitely a book I would recommend to any lovers of historical fiction who are looking for a more unique perspective and storyline.