The Undertaking by Audrey Magee – Book Review


    I have to start this review with the observation that I had a hard time reading this book.  I had no love for any of the characters, and was hard-pressed to find much in the way of empathy for them.  Okay, now that I got that out of the way, onward with the review.

This was a look at WWII from the perspective the Spinells, a lower-middle class German family who decided the way up was to join the Nazi party.  The daughter, Katharina, marries a soldier (Peter Faber), by proxy, as part of the German breeding program.  Her reason for marrying was that if Peter died, she would receive a pension.  Peter marries her so that he can get honeymoon leave.  During this leave, Peter joins his new father-in-law on his nightly rounds of beating, killing and rounding up Jews in Berlin.  During the honeymoon Katharina gets pregnant.  Peter goes back to his unit and is eventually sent to Stalingrad.  It’s during this time that the Spinells begin to enjoy the rewards of Mr. Spinells nightly labor.  Katharina and her mother are given extra food, jewels, furs and a large new apartment to live in.  There is no mention of exactly how they receive these things, or who originally owned them.  They just accept everything as their due, since they are such “good” Germans these things are “owed” to them.

The book never talks about the war in any other way than how glorious it is.  The bland tone of the book actually made it easier to  read, but never to understand any of their actions.  I don’t want to have any spoilers, but if you are looking for reasons (lofty or otherwise) as to how this family was able to live with themselves, you won’t find them.

The book itself is wonderful, but the characters are reprehensible.  Mr. Spinell manages to thrive regardless of how the war turned out, and in the end was busy working for the Russians and learning the language.  He’s a man who will land on his feet, no matter what.

Another reviewer thought that the undertaking was all about the marriage between Katharina and Peter; I felt that it was a metaphor for the “great undertaking” of the German war machine.  Both fell apart and didn’t last in the end.

I would definitely recommend this book, as a book doesn’t have to be pleasant to be good.  It was very thought-provoking and once again brought up that age-old question, “What would I do in such a situation?”


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