Tuesday, May 20, 2014

book review: The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

The backstory: The Undertaking, the debut novel by Audrey Magee, is on the 2014 Baileys Prize shortlist. It was also longlisted for the 2015 Walter Scott Prize.

The basics: In early World War II, teacher and German soldier Peter Faber, desperate to escape the Russian front, even if only for a few weeks, decides to marry a woman, Katharina Spinnell, he has never met. She gets his pension if he dies, and he gets two weeks leave, which he spends with Katharina and her parents in Berlin.

My thoughts: I confess, when I saw The Undertaking on the Baileys Prize longlist (and eventually the shortlist), I was skeptical. "Another World War II novel? Hasn't it all been done?" I'm hardly an expert on World War II fiction, but I've been suffering from fatigue for several years. Good news: The Undertaking is fresh, enchanting, and an incredibly accomplished debut.

The relationship between Katharina and Peter is fascinating to watch. There initial time together is incredibly awkward, but their tenderness is lovely and well-executed. I found myself rooting for them both, even as I knew the war was nowhere near over, as the Germans thought it was. Danger for them, individually and as a couple, lingered around every corner.

Although there is a love story at the heart of this novel, there is so much more than romance present. At its heart are two dynamic historical characters navigating a fascinating and horrifying time. Magee captures the time and place beautifully, and she lets both of her main characters tell their stories simultaneously, which provides a glimpse into the many sides of the war.

The verdict: As I read, I was struck by how vivid and cinematic this novel is. The prose is comprised mostly of dialogue, which helps the pace move quickly. The action seamlessly moves between the front and Berlin, and Magee manages to simultaneously capture the essence of both places without bogging down the plot or narrative with too many details.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: September 2, 2014 (it's out in the UK now)
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Undertaking from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Audrey Magee's website.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!


  1. The premise wouldn't initially do much for me, but I'm a sucker for awesome writing, so I may give this one a go at some point. Compelling review, Carrie!

  2. This book sounds wonderful. I don't usually read WWII books either for the same reasons. Glad this one is different.

  3. The fact that you think it's "fresh" in the realm of WWII novels really makes me want to read it!


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