Sunday, December 16, 2018

Erpenbeck's End of Days

End of Days / Jenny Erpenbeck; translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.
New York: New Directions, c2014.
239 p.

After reading Erpenbeck's newest book, Go Went Gone, earlier this year, I checked my local library on the off-chance that there might be another of her works available. We had a copy of The End of Days so I picked it up and started reading.

It was wonderful. It's a sort of literary theme-with-variations, told in five movements connected by an intermezzo, each one ending with the main character's death, then the next section beginning as if that death had been avoided and her life carried on. The "what ifs" and alternate futures are so interesting; I love this kind of book.

But this book is more than an individual life: the imagined lives of the baby girl who dies in the first chapter cover the tumultuous 20th century, in places that are never peaceful. The characters move across countries, away from war and persecution; they struggle to find connection even within their own families; they reflect the larger political and social turmoil of Germany and middle Europe in general. The book is full of traumatic events (not even counting the main character's multiple deaths) but the power of humanity, and our perseverance in the face of trouble, shines out above the details as well. 

The writing is powerful, masterful: each section has its own tone but each is equally absorbing. Erpenbeck's compassion for the mass of humanity illuminates this story, which goes beyond a gimmick to create a richly imagined possible life for our baby girl, one in which each potential branching seems plausible and emotionally wrenching even though by its very structure it also points out the fictionality of it all. 

I was dazzled by and immersed in this book the entire time I was reading. Clever, emotionally resonant, creatively intricate, and with a storyline that I just had to keep following to the bitter end, this was a read I won't soon forget. Highly recommended. 

Further Reading:

Penelope Lively's Making It Up, an imagining of what a character's life could have been if certain turning points had gone another way. Short stories inspired by incidents in the author's life

Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, in which Ursula is born and dies and is reborn, over and over, getting a new try at life each time around


  1. I read Go, Went Gone as well....
    and thanks for this review of her earlier book!
    She is such a talented writer!

    1. She is! I'm glad to have discovered her this year, and am also happy that there are a few books to explore in her backlist.

  2. This is next on my list, too, having just finished Go, Went, Gone. Thanks!

    1. I know, after I finished Go, Went, Gone I just had to look for another one. She's addictive.


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