cover image The Undertaking

The Undertaking

Audrey Magee. Grove, $24 (304p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2245-2

This excellent debut novel opens on the “stinking hellhole” of the front lines early in WWII, where teacher-turned-Nazi soldier Peter Faber marries a photograph of Katharina. Meanwhile, in Berlin, Katharina marries a picture of Peter. Though the two have never met, their pact “ensured honeymoon leave for him and a widow’s pension for her in the event of his death.” Much to their mutual surprise, the 10 days they are granted to consummate their marriage become intensely passionate, providing both characters with a singular reason to live. Alternating chapters follow Peter on the battlefield and Katharina’s harrowing life in Berlin. Occasional letters between the two reveal private hopes, memory, and torment that add to the already white-knuckle pace of the book. An intimate portrayal of Peter and his fellow soldiers facing defeat in Russia—illustrated primarily through dialogue—shows men at once monstrous and sympathetic, barbaric yet vulnerable. By simultaneously exposing the difficulties Katharina faces at home, Magee provides a heartfelt rendering of regular Germans who have been both complicit in and abused by the Third Reich’s power. Agent: Melanie Jackson Agency (Sept.)