The Undertaking starts with Peter Faber marrying Katharina Spinell one day while fighting on the Eastern front. The brilliance of the opening is that they’re not together for the wedding ceremony but are actually saying the vows to each other’s photographs. It’s a marriage that’ll help both of them, he’s doing it to get honeymoon leave and she’s hoping to guarantee a bit of security for herself for the future.
They’ve seen a few images of each other before selecting their chosen partner. Status is a big issue in these times with Katharina’s parents questioning whether this man, a teacher, is good enough for her daughter. Her mother is particular is vocal about a preference for a doctor or lawyer. They feel that when the war is won their daughter will be better provided for if she picks a man of a higher social standing.
Peter’s personal hygiene obviously leaves a lot to be desired and this book gives a good glimpse of the glory of getting a wash with hot water and the taste of a good cake. These treats are in stark constrast to the dirt and filth of daily life on the Eastern front.
Magee’s writing is very heavy on dialogue and the book is very action-packed with less description than you’d expect. This actually works better than I expected with the book providing a lot of food for the imagination. We see the sheer brutality of some of the men, with individuals being ripped from their homes to make rooms for others and women being shot in the face.
The characters have to make great sacrifices for the cause. They’re told they’re doing a great thing for their country and that it’ll all be worth it in the end. The war propaganda is that the others are doing much worse than the Germans. People worry about the potential cost of not doing what society expects and go along with their leaders almost without question.
This is a very fine debut from Audrey Magee. It’s a book that zips along at a frenetic pace with a love story set in among all the misery of war. It’s an extremely accessible book that I imnagine will have widespread appeal