One of the most frustrating parts of loving to read is that we all inevitably go through books that are tepid. That is to say books that are neither terrible, nor terribly good. Lately, I’ve had a run of bad luck with tepid books. Luckily, during a recent trip to the library, a friend pressed The Undertaking by Audrey Magee into my hands.
First of all, this novel (Magee’s debut) is about Nazis. Literal Nazis. And it is to Magee’s credit that she has the talent to craft such a magnificent and moving tale of humanity out of the dregs of Nazi Germany. Our protagonists are Peter and Katharina, who marry sight unseen while Peter is fighting at the Eastern Front during World War II. Peter wants to be able to take “honeymoon leave” to escape the discomforts of life on the front. Katharina would like the security of a soldier’s pension in the event of her new husband’s death, but mostly she just wants to escape her overbearing parents and their cramped and shabby apartment in east Berlin. To both Peter and Katharina’s surprise, their marriage of convenience turns quickly romantic.
What follows is a split narrative that details each protagonist’s experience during the war and its aftermath. Magee’s writing style relies heavily on dialogue and simple declarative sentences. Action scenes unfold with brutal and terse efficiency. Characters are assumed to have inner lives by their conversations and actions, but as readers we are never allowed full access to them. This creates an emotional remove that allows the reader to tolerate these—at times—extremely unsavory characters. It also allows Magee to tell an inherently dramatic and emotional tale without resorting to melodrama and sentimentality.
The Undertaking benefits just as much, maybe even more, from what it leaves out than from what it includes. It’s a magnificently edited book. It has, at times, the efficiency and emotional resonance of a poem. As characters go, Katharina and Peter are explicitly ordinary. They deal in the mundanities of wartime existence, but it’s through the cracks of their blandness that we as readers begin to glimpse the atrocities that they and the people around them are capable of inflicting. The Holocaust unfolds in the background of the book, never specifically mentioned, but always there, a character ever lurking in the background. Like a good scary movie, these brief glimpses of horror are more effective than any overwrought description could be. As readers we know that an onslaught of human depravity is unfolding just out of sight, and what we fill in with the gaps of our imaginations is more powerful than any description Magee could write.
As much as I enjoyed this novel, reader be forewarned that it is an unflinchingly bleak story. If you would like your next reading experience to be light and uplifting, this is not the book for you. The Undertaking also deserves a trigger warning for two rape scenes. They are anything but gratuitous—they are central to the plot and add to the emotional resonance of the narrative—but they’re there and they’re heartbreaking. I would also like to add a trigger warning for “bawling your eyes out at the end of the book and smudging your glasses all to hell.” Or at least that happened to me.
My only real criticism of the novel lies in the cover for the version of the book released in the United States. The anonymous woman in a bride’s veil smacks of chic-lit marketing. I have enjoyed my share of writers who write for women. Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones novels and almost anything written by Marian Keyes are well-read favorites. But The Undertaking should not be marketed as historical fiction for women or as chick-lit fiction. It should be marketed as straight up literary fiction with a cover appropriate for attracting women AND men. I would have never picked up this book based on the cover alone, and had my friend not pressed it into my hand and insisted I read it, I would not have had the gift of recommending this wonderful book to you.
Kate Gaskin is a poet, writer, sometimes-college adjunct teacher, and enthusiastic reader who lives with her husband and toddler son in Pensacola, FL. She can be found holding a beer on her dock on Perdido Bay or at her online home katebgaskin.com