Audrey Magee has worked as a journalist for twelve years, writing for The Irish Times and The Guardian, among other newspapers and, consequently, I was not surprised at the amount of paper coverage she got when her debut novel, The Undertaking, was published. The glowing reviews gave me pause.
Magee has picked a difficult topic, the Second World War, and even though she looks at it from a German perspective, she tells us nothing really new. The appalling invasion of Russia and the subsequent suffering of the German troops inadequately prepared for the Russian winter, the battle of Stalingrad, are all very familiar territory for readers as indeed are the effects of the bombings in Berlin and its capture by the Russian army. Nevertheless, she does manage to give it a fresh spin chiefly by narrowing her field to the experiences of two people - Peter Faber and Katherina Spinell.
'The undertaking' arises when Peter - in order to escape the Russian front for even a brief period - agrees to marry a total stranger, Katherina, who lives in Berlin in return for her undertaking to wait for him or to receive a pension in the event of his death. Neither expects much from a relationship that starts with marriage but to their mutual surprise, they fall in love. And it is this love and longing for Katherina that sustains Peter as he fights on to Stalingrad, capture, and incarceration in a series of Stalin's notorious camps. The story has verisimilitude as apparently Magee met the German owner of a restaurant in West Cork who had an identical experience and undertaking. [Go to link https://tinyurl.com/mn7j5ze ]
Katherina meanwhile prospers in Berlin where she lives with her parents who are patronised and supported by a senior member of the Nazi party who provides them with all the perks and advantages denied to the general population. The novel, then, continues on to the Fall of Berlin and subsequent years with Katherina living in the Russian zone.
Magee writes well though in her narrative she largely eschews the bigger issues of WW2, such as the Holocaust or the brutality of the German army in Eastern Europe and Russia, apart from some throwaway remarks such as one made by Peter to his friend, Fuchs, '...we're here to clear the communists and Jews from Russia so that my wife and child have a better future'. And later he optimistically remarks of the Russians, 'we'll get on well with them in the end when all this is forgotten. When they can practise their religion and own their farms again'. And back in Berlin, Katherina and her parents move happily into a big apartment taken from Jews and still beautifully furnished and equipped, their only gripe being that there is a bust of Mendelssohn in the hall.
Apart from concentrating on the particular rather than the general, Magee uses third person realism in her narrative and the story is told largely in dialogue rather than long descriptive passages. This works well in enabling her to limit her canvas and circumscribe the experiences of her two main characters. On the other hand, at times it can appear that Peter together with four or five others encompass the entire invading German army as there is no reference to long columns of infantry or tanks and only occasional reports of guns which is a little disconcerting. However, that is a quibble about what is an elegant and at times quite beautiful story of relationships in war.