In the autumn of 1941 Peter Faber, a young German soldier, arrives back in Berlin to meet his bride for the first time. He married Katharina Spiller’s photo while serving in Russia. It was one of many marriages of convenience arranged by bureaus at the time - he receives three weeks of honeymoon leave, and she will be due to a pension should he die in service, as well as the status of a married woman in a city without men.
Their initial encounter is not promising – she has to treat his hair for lice (he is so inured to them that he had forgotten they were there) and both sets of parents are horrified. Yet they fall in love - and their son is born while Peter is back in the freezing Russian wastes. Katharina promises to wait for him in Berlin, and The Undertaking is the story of how that promise holds them together. He suffers through a terrible march to Stalingrad in January snow, and then a battle during which he sees his comrades fall around him. Back home, Katharina has no idea if he is living or dead – but she’s told to hope he’s died, rather than having committed the shameful act of surrendering to the Russians. Nevertheless, she waits.
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 – instead of the detailed descriptions that one might expect in this type of novel, there are whole pages of unadorned speech. It’s an innovative way to tell the story – and the voices shine from the page. Magee pares back the description and the narrative comment, rarely telling us what her characters are thinking. This method is particularly successful at conveying the story as it sinks into areas of moral relativism – Katharina shuns Jews and eats fine food with party members while her old neighbours starve, and Peter and his men kill Russian villagers for trying to hide their food.
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’s book. Storms of War, about a family in 1914, is published by Orion in July