Sunday, September 7, 2014


Title: The Undertaking
Author: Audrey Magee
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Publication Date: February 6, 2014
Genres: Historical Fiction, Romance
Reviewed by: Ellen Fritz
Ellen’s rating: 4/5


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...


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.

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Audrey Magee worked for twelve years as a journalist and has written for, among others, The Times, The Irish Times, the Observer and Guardian. She studied German and French at University College Dublin and journalism at Dublin City University. She lives in Wicklow with her husband and three daughters. The Undertaking is her first novel.

In her 20s and 30s, she travelled extensively, first as a student, living in Germany and Australia, where she taught English; later as a journalist, covering, among many other issues, the war in Bosnia, child labour in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and the impact of Perestroika on Central Asia. She was Ireland Correspondent of The Times for six years, and wrote extensively about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the subsequent peace process and the chaos caused by the Omagh bomb.

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