Audrey Magee is a name you might not have heard of, but you will. Her debut novel, The Undertaking, is coming out with Atlantic Books early in February. It’s a novel set in Germany and Russia during the Second World War about an arranged marriage between a soldier on the front and a woman who wants to secure a financially independent future with a war widow’s pension. It features harrowing accounts of the Eastern Front, and Stalingrad in particular, as well as the dire privations on the home front in Berlin.
I had the treat of getting a sneak preview of this novel over a year ago in MS form and I was blown away. Watching the German TV series, Generation War, shown on RTE recently, set in the same locations and covering the same territory, I was reminded of how much more powerful Audrey’s book was in terms of concentrated emotional heft. And while her focus is narrow – Peter Faber and his wife, Katherina – the philisophical scope of the novel is enormous, touching on themes of betrayal, patriotism, denial, survival guilt and retribution.
This is a fiercesome novel and doesn’t read at all like historical fiction. First of all, much of it is in dialogue. Audrey banishes the retrospective view, and makes the siege of Stalingrad sound like it’s happening right now and you’re in it. She takes her reader by the scruff of the neck and doesn’t let go. The writing is elegant, spare and lean and carries a powerful emotional clout you won’t forget. I haven’t.
Audrey talks about the inspiration for the novel in this interview: www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOJquB4TgCQ