“The Undertaking” by Audrey Magee (2014) – book review

Every now and then a book comes along that gets under your skin and literally knocks you off your size sixes.

“The Undertaking” is such a novel, and it is going to stay with me for a very long time.

The Independent’s comment that this “is an engaging and beautifully written novel, with an emotional resonance that remains long after you’ve closed the book” is a bit of an understatement, and the visual on the jacket cover of my copy is perhaps deliberately misleading in creating expectations of a rather more romantic style than the tale conveyed within.

We are apprised on the back of the book that a marriage of convenience is arranged between Katherina and Peter, and we know that the timeframe is smack bang in the midst of the Second World War, but what is extremely unexpected is that from very early on the author holds no bars in using what Helen Dunmore describes as a “disconcertingly deadpan tone of the narrative (which) serves to suggest the moral blankness” of our two protagonists.

Katherina is single-mindedly ruthless in looking after Number One and her unborn child, as her father clearly sets his sights on surviving the conflict by allying himself with the powerful Doctor Weinart in Berlin. Upwardly mobile and dismissive of their former neighbours, Katherina and her parents unrepentantly take over a flat just recently vacated by a deported Jewish family. They attend the lavish dinners held by the doctor and his powerful wife, and enjoy all the perks – and cake – of being on the winning side…while it lasts.

Peter, meanwhile, finds himself fighting on the front line, and endeavouring to survive in a far more literal sense. His destiny leads him to Stalingrad and a rude awakening, as he lives through the brutalities of war, never losing sight of his dream to return to his newly formed family unit.

Shortlisted for last year’s Baileys’s Prize, Audrey Magee’s début work is shocking, hard-hitting and notable for not once urging on the side of caution by attempting to sugar coat the characters peopling her novel. It makes for often uncomfortable reading, for criticise their actions as one may be tempted to do, it is impossible not to ponder how any one of us would/should have reacted under similar, unthinkable situations. Whether or not either protagonist ‘deserves’ our sympathy is up for discussion – read what the author hoped to achieve in her interview with The Washington Independent – but one thing is for certain: this book will continue to haunt and stimulate its readers long after the last page has been read. It is a marvellously well written if deeply disturbing read. Highly recommended.

Rating : 9/10

Read in June 2015

Shortlisted for the Baileys’s Prize for Fiction 2014, shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize 2015.

Image taken from here.
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6 Responses to “The Undertaking” by Audrey Magee (2014) – book review

  1. Pingback: Baileys’ prize shortlist 2014 | Literary ramblings etc

  2. Denise says:

    So much that stayed with me in this. There was the scene with not enough birds in the butchers. But people’s attitudes – you could so see how easily the veneer of selflessness that civilisation brings could slide away when things start to get desperate, how strong the instinct to survive is. It felt so simple yet so authentic. Great book – glad you read it and wrote this review.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi, The survival of the fittest, indeed…
    Did you see also that the author, who is Irish, chooses to enlarge on why she felt it was okay to describe a time and a culture that is not her own in an addendum at the the very end of the book? – I thought that was really interesting. Reminded me also a bit of the whole “Gone Girl” scenario and discussions around not sympathising with the main characters – usually I prefer to ‘like’ the protagonists, and this book make it virtually impossible to condone while at the same time making everything so completely comprehensible. Nx


  4. Pingback: Reading Challenge from January 2015 | Literary ramblings etc

  5. Kay says:

    We have our brighton book group this week – this sounds perfect x

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Kay, it was not at all what I expected and I do keep thinking back to passages from the book as the days go by. Really thought-provoking and think could lead to some good discussion. Definitely not a “summer read” though, as couldn’t be less light and frothy, just to warn you. What did you choose to read together last time? Nxx


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