Debut novel depicts horrors of war

The Westmorland Gazette: The Undertaking by Audrey Magee The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

The Undertaking by Audrey Magee (Atlantic Books, £12.99, hardback)

This debut novel set during the Second World War by journalist Audrey Magee is both engaging and brutal.

It tells the story of ordinary German soldier Peter Faber who, desperate to escape the Eastern Front, enters into a marriage of convenience with Katherina Spinnell, a woman he has never met.

In return, Peter earns honeymoon leave and Katherina becomes entitled to a pension should he die on the front.

During his ten-days leave in Berlin, the couple fall for each other and, when Peter returns to the increasingly grim front line, the dream of returning to her helps sustain him.

The novel charts the insidious way the Spinnell family, through Katherina’s father’s relationship with a leading Nazi, benefit materially as Jews are displaced from their homes.

In Rusia the sickening violence inflicted on villages by the advancing German troops is also depicted unflinchingly.

The author does not pass overt judgement but readers are forced to face the dreadful consequences of war and the depths of moral depravity to which men can sink in such circumstances.

Some of the most moving scenes are set as Russian troops, including Peter, are surrounded in Stalingrad and start starving to death. Military order breaks down and individuals are left to fight for their lives.

While the novel is often bleak, the characters are well drawn and Magee gives a real insight into the horrors of war and what it can do to people and relationships.

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