Atlantic Books £12.99

Book review: The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

 

One of the most brutal battles of the Second World War was the Nazi offensive against Stalingrad where atrocities were committed on both sides and the soldiers also had to contend with starvation and freezing conditions during a lengthy siege.

It was only when the German 6th Army was encircled and abandoned by Hitler that they finally surrendered. Emaciated soldiers were detained in appalling conditions in Soviet labour camps, many perished, others were not repatriated until 1956. This is the backdrop to Audrey Magee’s absorbing novel about one couple’s attempts to survive the horrors.

Peter Faber, an ordinary German soldier, and Katharina Spinell, a young Berlin woman, decide on a marriage of convenience – they have never met. He gets three weeks’ honeymoon leave from the front and, should he be killed in action, she is guaranteed a widow’s pension. When they do meet in the autumn of 1941 they enjoy a brief but intense sexual relationship. Returning to his regiment on the march east, Peter learns that Katharina is pregnant. Keeping the image of his wife and child in his mind he endures unimaginable hardship so that he can return to them.

The undertaking of the title is Katharina’s decision to wait for Peter, despite not knowing if he is dead or alive. She witnesses at first hand the psychological wounds of war when her brother, a shadow of his former self, is given sick leave. Despite suffering from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) he is sent back to the front. As the tide of war turns, so Katharina’s personal fortunes change, and she has to forge a different life for herself. 

Some argue that the Soviet troops’ defeat of the Germans at Stalingrad was crucial, to the outcome of the war and the course of 20th-century Europe, so it’s not surprising that the battle has inspired numerous books and films. The Undertaking may cover familiar ground, but Magee offers an original take. She uses dialogue to great effect, immersing her reader in her characters’ fears and vividly evoking two different worlds: the civilian life in Berlin, where Katharina’s family are patronised and protected by a powerful Nazi family, is contrasted with a devastating portrait of war – the casual violence of soldiers against enemy civilians, the rape of women, and numerous cruelties played out every day.  Magee is eloquent on how violence gradually strips away layers of humanity.

The Undertaking is immensely readable and serves as a poignant reminder of the ferocious struggle for Stalingrad and its aftermath. Magee offers an insight into the deprivations of ordinary combatants as well as exploring the excesses of those in power. She vividly evokes the chilling ruthlessness of wartime Nazis as they hunt down the few remaining Jewish families and the rampaging Soviet troops as they enter Berlin. It’s an impressive debut.

Given the accounts of atrocities being carried out in Syria today, the reports of torture and starvation and the flood of refugees into neighbouring countries, Magee’s novel is also timely.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style