Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Book Review: The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

From Goodreads:
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.
The writing here is absolutely stunning.  I first heard about this last month in Library Journal and was thrilled to find it available on NetGalley.  It's just beautifully done.  I'm blown away by how the author uses such sparse language to convey the deepest emotions.  It was on the Women's Prize for Fiction shortlist alongside Americanah, Burial Rites, and The Goldfinch, along with several others (the winner was A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing).  The Undertaking rightfully earns its place there in my opinion.  I'll be dwelling on this one for a while.

Entertainment Value
I absolutely devoured this one in two sittings.  It's not long (approximately 300 pages) and it's made up of lots of short, terse dialogue.  There's plenty of action and the story and characters are enthralling.  I couldn't put it down.  That said, it is by no means an easy read.   It's set in World War II Germany and Russia and we get unrelenting and brutal violence on all sides.

As much as we want to root for our main characters, we're continually reminded of their heartlessness when dealing with Jews and Russians.  Then, as the tide of war turns, we see them face the brutality they enacted on others in unflinching detail.  We aren't spared any amount of suffering, from starvation to violence, to rape.  It's hard to get through, and readers don't have hope of a happy ending to pull them through, since we know how things end for the Germans.

While the story itself is wonderful, it's our German characters who completely captivated me.  They're both monsters and average citizens.  We forget for a moment who they are and hope that they will find success and happiness, only to be shocked by their casual disdain for human life around them.

And if you're hoping for redemption, it's not to be found.  What will stay in my mind is the way that our characters, as much as we liked them, don't have a redemptive moment.  They only feel guilt when they are themselves treated as they have treated others.  And we're left to wonder whether or not their guilt is genuine or based only on their sorrow for their own suffering.

This is bleak in so many ways.  The writing itself, blunt and sparse, echoes the cold and desolate setting of the Russian front.  And our characters themselves resemble both the style of the novel and the setting.  They are alternately cold and hostile and warm and human in ways that will challenge the reader's own empathy.  I hope that some of you will read this and discuss it with me, because it's one that I need to talk about.  It's beautifully done and will appeal to those who enjoy literary and historical fiction.

It gets my wholehearted endorsement, with the caveat that it is brutal.  It's not for those who are put off by cursing or violence and it does contain unflinching scenes of rape.  It depicts the realities of war in a way that I found haunting but beautiful and a reflection of humanity that I am anxious to discuss with other readers.

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