People on the wrong side of history are given humane consideration in an Irish debut, shortlisted for the Bailey’s Prize, which follows a young German couple married during World War II.
Journalist Magee uses clipped, factual prose to deliver her gathering storm of a story narrated from the perspectives of German soldier Peter Faber and bank clerk Katharina Spinell, who, in 1941, agree to a state-arranged marriage (a “Nazi breeding stunt,” according to Peter’s father) in exchange for honeymoon leave and perhaps a widow’s pension. Peter and Katharina take their vows separately, miles apart, meeting for the first time when Peter arrives for the honeymoon at Katharina’s family home in Berlin. To their surprise and relief, the pair fall in love. Peter is the son of a liberal family, but Mr. Spinell is a party follower, in thrall to a sinister Dr. Weinart who infects Peter with his belief in the fatherland. While Peter must soon return to the eastern front, where the savagery and suffering continue, the Spinells move into a fine new apartment, recently the home of expelled Jews, and Katharina finds herself pregnant. Then her brother, driven mad by his experience of war, is killed, and Peter, fighting in Stalingrad in 1943, discovers his own limits, as the army is surrounded by Russians, and the abandoned soldiers are killed, commit suicide or surrender. Holding on to the talisman of returning to his wife and son, Peter manages to survive, as does Katharina, although with the war lost, the full, final degradation and humiliation of both the fighting men and their families are inescapable. When the couple finally reunite, the distances each has traveled are starkly revealed.
Magee’s bare, brutal story is not new, but it is told with a sharply focused simplicity that both exposes and condemns through its understatement.