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Review: The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

OMG this is a bleak book.

Peter Faber, German soldier in World War II, enters into a marriage of convenience with Katharina Spinell; he for a few weeks of leave and she for the prospect of a widows’ pension should her new husband die in battle.  The two strangers get over the initial tension to enjoy a time of relative peace and comfort, before Peter is sent back to Russia, and ultimately Stalingrad, and conditions dramatically worsen for both of them.

It’s involving, and for a couple of hours I was totally drawn into this world of cold, hunger and survival.  Afterwards, as I was walking round the supermarket, I was amazed that people were nonchalantly wandering round obtaining food and being warm.  I drove to the athletics track to pick up LD#2 and as I waited, I was equally amazed to witness well fed people enjoying the luxury of running round and round to improve their health.

The still sentient part of me that hasn’t been pulverised into oblivion is just about together enough to make some observations:

– The atmospheres felt very authentic and well researched, both in Berlin, where Katharina’s family pandered to the desires of the Nazi ruling classes, and on the front, where the soldiers increasingly fell victim to the ruling classes’ blindness to the human cost of war.

– The authenticity was shaped by the little details, such as the eleven women queuing anxiously for only eight geese in the butcher’s at Christmas.

– There’s a powerful “odd couple” relationship between Faber and his half-Russian comrade Faustmann.  They hate each other so much at first that shots are fired (not at each other, but that’s its own, brain searing story), but the relationship comes to an end touchingly and memorably.

– There’s always a fine balance in a harrowing book as to how far to push the reader.   I reached my limit about 3/4 of the way in, and skim read my way to the end.  It got unremittingly worse and worse.  However, the thing that kept me reading was the main characters’ determination to survive.

The book is about people’s ability to survive, and the ways people cope with trauma to keep going.  There is a glimmer of optimism about finding hope in the bleakest of situations; however, I haven’t felt this emotionally drained by a book for a while.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s good.  Really good.  But… challenging.  Not for everyone.

I am now going off to drink heavily and lie down.

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21 Comments

  1. kateatthekeyboard

    Uh oh. Now I see what you mean about all of the books on that list being bleak. This was the only one I knew absolutely nothing about and sounds like it may be the bleakest of all… I’m not sure that will bother me but I have to say I’m not usually the biggest fan of books about war. Slightly apprehensive about this one.

    • Yes it’s very war-ry! But I found the novelty of having a look inside the the mindset and situation of the German side was interesting enough in its own way to keep me reading, especially at the beginning.

      Having this on the list I think weighs the list down massively on the bleak side, all by itself. I am not sure if it will win. It’s intense, but to get this effect, I think it was necessary for the author to narrow the scope of it. Maybe it’s a bit too narrow to win.

      Looking forward to your review on it.

  2. Good grief, that sounds tough. How long is it? (My appetite for sad books is lessened when they’re also very big books – which is why McEwan and Marukami are ok, but I avoid thousand page grimfests)

    • 250 pages but quite big print and I managed to condense 50 of the end pages into a blur hopefully without losing too much. Length was in my mind when I bought it because I knew it would be tough.

      I won’t be suggesting this one to my book group, short or no.

  3. I want to read it! Sounds really good but would it be giving too much away to tell us whether it has a happy or sad ending?

    • Do you really want to know – I can email you if you like? There is quite a bit of tension towards the end about whether it will be happy or sad (which proved too much for me.)

  4. Wow…bleak doesn’t bother me but I am curious about that 3/4 point where you couldn’t continue. Was it graphic? disturbing? I can handle emotional bleakness but not physically disturbing-bleak, if that makes any sense…

    It’s quite something, if it made you look at the world and people around you in a different way.

    • That’s a really good question. It built up slowly, I guess a bit like the actual conditions themselves – sort of, this is bad, but just emotional bleak, then the physical conditions worsen as well, There were moments of graphicness all the way through, so it wasn’t that. I think the point where I couldn’t continue was were it was physically bleak but also emotionally bleak, and it was a new level of emotional bleakness (don’t want to give too much away). At this point Peter actually describes his physical environment as not as bad as past conditions he has known, which is a very tiny comfort.

  5. Holy mozers Denise, this book is not for the feint hearted is it! Good on you for actually reading it 🙂 hope you enjoyed your drink…

    • I did enjoy! Now I am through with it, I am enjoying discussing it, it is definitely worth having read. Couldn’t read too many books like that though.

    • I think it’s good for us to keep hold of that thought. Not beat ourselves up about it, but just to remember – after all WW2 wasn’t even a hundred years ago.

      • Just thinking about your anecdote involving the food market, it’s amazing what a short time ago WWII and just post WWII was – and how much each of us takes for granted in terms of safety and adequate healthy and nutrition. Do you ever watch Call the Midwife (set in 1950’s London)?

      • I haven’t watched Call the Midwife but I’ve heard good things about it.  An added layer to the food market scene was that it didn’t pull punches about the fact that those with money and influence didn’t have to worry about the problems of having enough to eat.  What is more, they didn’t care about those beneath them.  A problem which is still present in today’s society.

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  6. I think books that tell the truth about the past (which can also be the truth about the future…) are very, very important. They can serve as wake-up trumpets–even sometimes a call to action. They have at times initiated huge social change (as Grapes of Wrath and Uncle Tom’s Cabin did here in the U.S. If they’re well-written they make us aware of how amazing it is whenever things go ordinarily well for us; and remind us that things really could be so much worse.

    But I feel l like I’ve read my share of bleak stories. I get it. I’ve read so many of them that sometimes the memory of them will come upon me and I find myself walking around just as you’ve so eloquently described, stunned that we’re mostly safe and sound.

    Another terrific review, Denise!

  7. Thank you, glad you enjoyed it!

    Yes I think you are right. This book was shot through with truth. But I couldn’t take too many helpings of this kind of truth.

  8. This reminds me of how I felt when watching Schindler’s List and tried to explain to Aspie D what it must have been like for those families who one minute were going to work, eating, drinking, celebrating, marrying, having children, and then having everything they owned taken from them and then taken from their families never to be seen again. How we can go about our day but that it can be lost. I’m not sure I would want to read this book or not, although I ‘do’ dark and this is dark! Maybe it isn’t the right time in my life to read it, I think I would drink heavily too after every chapter! Another great review Denise, thank you!

    • Thank you, glad you enjoyed the review.

      Schindler’s List is a good parallel and it’s difficult to get through our own layers of denial to imagine the rawness of what you describe.  I think it’s a difficult task for a writer to keep us with them for most of the way.

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  9. Your last line did make me laugh! I am not great with bleak books. I feel I’ve read my share for teaching purposes, and now am allowed to veer towards a certain amount of jolliness in the bookshop. BUT, and it’s a big but, I love the way that literature allows us to listen to voices that have been silenced and enter into situations that our cozy, security-oriented world won’t let us even dream about. It’s important to share the awful world of some of these books from time to time, if for no other reason than to realise how incredibly easy we have it.

    • I think you are right and the key is “from time to time.” Interesting that bleak books are the ones that make it to teaching materials. I do admire a good comic writer though.

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