Desperate to escape the Eastern Front, German soldier, Peter Faber, makes an arranged marriage to Katharina Spinell, the daughter of an ambitious Nazi. Peter obtains ten days’ leave, Katharina the promise of his pension if he is killed in action. Despite their strictly pragmatic beginning, a genuine attraction develops between Peter and Katharina, and their passionate letters carry them through the horrors of Stalingrad and the humiliation of German defeat. By the time Peter manages to get back to Berlin, however, both have been profoundly changed by their experience and their shared dream begins to look increasingly frail.
The spare, dialogue-driven style of this novel makes for a somewhat jerky pace which is difficult to get used to. Once you do, however, the story is gripping and absorbing. Magee’s unadorned and unflinching account of the German defeat at Stalingrad, contrasted with the comfort of life in Berlin for favoured party members, drives a thoughtful meditation on guilt and survival, honour, fidelity and political expediency. Peter and Katharina are very human characters, and it is their very humanity which bestows on them a kind of heroism. Though a sense of redemption is hard to find in this bleak story, it is there, leaving the reader with a concrete, though slender, hope for Peter and Katharina’s futures in the new world order.
An original, clear-sighted and unsentimental narrative of ordinary life during a momentous period in recent European history.