The Undertaking – Audrey Magee

the undertakingWe were overjoyed to have been chosen as one of the reading groups shadowing this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction and loved the chance of reading The Undertaking, a book we wouldn’t have ordinarily have chosen to read, either personally or as part of the book group.

The book, written from a German perspective gave us a unique insight into how the war affected people living in Germany and how the country was split with the Nazi sympathizers and the German citizens.  The arrogance of the Nazi sympathizers appalled us with their lack of respect of anyone that crossed their paths; the fact that they quite willingly threw people from their own homes without a second thought was particularly disturbing.

The book was quite dialogue heavy and where some members usually enjoy this in a book, as they feel it allows them access to how a character is thinking, we did feel that a lot of the dialogue was wasted as we didn’t gain anything from reading this.

The story flipped from war-torn Germany to the battlefields of Russia and we thought the contrast of this was good.  However, we did feel that would have like to know a lot more about the characters that appeared.  There seemed to be no emotion underneath the events or characters and we concluded this was because the book was written in a factual sense and we would have liked a bit more depth to the story.

We did struggle to find any redeeming features about the characters featured.  We struggled to get our heads around the whole arranged marriage and in particular when Peter was sent back to the battlefield, the fact that their letters were peppered with ‘love’ seemed a little trite after only knowing each other a couple of weeks.  Katharina’s Father was particularly loathsome – a Nazi sympathizer and a social climber – an awful man who sealed his own daughter’s fate when he allowed the soldiers to take her off, knowing what would happen.  Her Mother was equally obnoxious, clearly obsessed with her son and marred by his untimely death.  The brother was the only character you could clearly feel any sympathy for.  Affected by the horrors of war, the family were brainwashed with the Nazi ideal and allowed him back on the front and ultimately sending him to his own death.

We also had a lengthy discussion about the penicillin issue when Katharina’s son falls ill.  We weren’t quite sure if this would have been available at this time and questioned the use of this in the story.  However, we did feel otherwise that the book was well researched by the author, with most of us caught in the moment with the book and others wanting to finish it quickly to find out what happened.

Most of us did finish the book quite quickly and found it easy to read, but harder to absorb the events that were happening.  We did feel cheated by the ending and that it concluded so abruptly.  Peter and Katharina’s meeting after so long apart seemed to last very briefly and there was a very quick acceptance that they should both go their separate ways.  We felt that there should have been some redemption for the many horrors that were featured, but unfortunately there were none.

All of us agreed that we were pleased to have read the book, as very rarely do you learn of how the war affected the German people.  We look forward to reading other books from the shortlist to see how this one compares.

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