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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

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The Undertaking - Audrey Magee

Towards the beginning of the Second World War Peter Faber and Katherina Spinell enter into an an agreement to get married. She has essentially chosen him from a catalogue of serving German soldiers. The deal is that he gets leave to return to Germany for his honeymoon and she gets his pension if he's killed. The ceremony takes place on the battlefield, in Katherina's absence. Then Peter sets off to Berlin to the address she has given him.

It's not a romantic arrangement and yet they end up finding love during their brief period together. That love has to carry them through Germany's defeat, Peter's capture in Stalingrad, the death of Katherina's child and the destruction of Berlin.

The interesting thing about the novel is that its told from the point of view of ordinary Germans who have an air of innocence about them but who are nevertheless entirely complicit in the crimes committed. Katherina's father works for the Nazi party and, while in Berlin, Peter helps her father round up Jews; later Katherina's family move into the apartment vacated by some of those wealthy Jews. In the Russian countryside, Peter and his fellow soldiers take the food and shelter that belongs to Russian peasants, treating any resistance with casual brutality. Yet they are also sympathetic individuals whom we come to pity and even like.

Audrey McGee's achievement is to show how the Germans who supported Hitler were people like us, how we might easily have behaved in the same way and how you do not have to be appallingly evil to take part in appallingly evil acts.

My only reservation about this book is that the author depends too much on dialogue at the expense of straightforward narrative. For example, Doctor Weinart, one of the central characters and a committed Nazi who plays a significant part in the corruption of all those involved in the story, is never actually described. The effect is to make the novel feel a little light-weight which is a pity because in other respects it's a very considerable achievement.