The popularity of the Second World War as a subject for a novel shows no signs of waning. Alison Macleod’s Unexploded was longlisted for the Man Booker last year; Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and Louise Walter’s Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase were both eligible for the Bailey’s Prize, and The Undertaking has made it to the longlist. War is a fertile breeding ground for stories – separation, despair, loyalty, fear, upheaval, idealism, and the constant fact that the fate of the characters is never entirely in their own hands.
The Undertaking takes the reader to the heart of the German army’s experience advancing into Russia. Peter Faber, a German soldier, is so desperate for leave that he marries a woman he has never met in order to secure a brief period of honeymoon leave. Katherina, for her part, gets the right to his pension should he be killed. When they meet, they are drawn to one another, and upon his return to the front, exchange a series of letters in which they declare their mutual love and loyalty.
The novel moves between Katherina’s experience in Berlin to Peter’s experience in Russia. Katherina’s mother and father are German loyalists; her father is close to Dr Weimar, who is part of Hitler’s circle. The family are moved to a luxurious flat in place of a Jewish family; they are brought cakes from the Führer’s own bakery; Peter is promised a good job when the war is won. Katherina buys beautiful clothes from the pawn shop and the whole family enjoys the position that being Aryan and loyal affords them.
Peter believes he is fighting for something worth having – more land for Germany. He cannot believe that the Fatherland, where Katherina is waiting for him, would desert its soldiers. The Russian winter, however, proves an enemy more formidable than the Russians themselves, and the longer Peter is away, the more precarious Katherina’s position as the wife of a German soldier hero becomes.
It’s hardly a plot spoiler to point out that Germany didn’t win the Second World War. The reader knows that the lovely flat, the soft towels and beautiful linen, the parties and the pawn-shop dresses are a result of the Final Solution – indeed, part of Peter’s leave was spent evicting Jews from their homes. It is a fiercely hard line for a writer to tread – how to relate such crimes whilst maintaining reader’s interest, even sympathy, with the characters who commit them? Magee uses the reader’s existing knowledge to lend depth and colour to a sparse, dialogue-driven narrative. The reader knows that the ending will be brutal and heartbreaking, and that the price Peter and Katherina must pay for their misplaced idealism is written in history. Magee’s touch is light but deft, and The Undertaking’s longlisting recognizes a skilled and engaging debut.