Bookshots: 'The End of Days' by Jenny Erpenbeck
Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review
The End of Days
Who wrote it?
Jenny Erpenbeck, an award-winning German author (translation by Susan Bernofsky)
Plot in a box:
An infant dies in her cradle, sending her family into a downward spiral that culminates in the ruin of them all—until Book 2, where the story continues as though the baby had survived and grown up to be a heartsick teenager, ultimately forming an impromptu suicide pact, sending her family into a downward spiral that culminates in the ruin of them all—until Book 3, where the story continues as though...
Invent a new title for this book:
Yeah, But What If She Didn't, Though...?
Read this if you liked:
Falling Out of Time, Daytripper, City of Thieves to a certain extent
Meet the book's lead(s):
A girl, a mother, a grandmother, a great-grandmother, a father, a great-grandfather, a younger girl, several men who assume that various females are prostitutes because of the way the backs of their heads look or something, a few Communists.
Said lead(s) would be portrayed in a movie by:
I'm pretty sure most of the characters are Jewish, or formerly Jewish, or pretending not to be Jewish, or married to Jewish wives, so anyone you've ever seen play a European Jew or who could theoretically ever play a European Jew.
Setting: Would you want to live there?
Most of the book is set in Central and Eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century, one of the worst places to be during one of the worst periods in history. I'll pass.
What was your favorite sentence?
Comrade Sch. in his yellow suit jacket always used to say contemptuously when two comrades fell in love: They're privatizing.
This book is quietly brilliant. I didn't like it at first. It opens on the death of this baby, and everyone's obviously really sad and the whole thing is a bit melodramatic and the narrator never actually mentions anyone by name, so it was a little confusing. I read the first couple of chapters and put it away for a while.
I don't know what made me pick it back up again, or when exactly things changed, but I wound up LOVING this book. No, actually, I think I know exactly when things changed: at the start of Book 2. (There are five "books" within the novel, each chronicling a different distinct period of time.) The first book was this Particular Thing, all about this baby dying and how it unraveled this family and where things went from there, real inciting incident type stuff. But then Book 2 starts with a huge what if: what if the baby didn't die, though? What would have happened then? At that point the story continues and the family moves to Vienna and World War I breaks out and times are tough and the baby girl grows up and falls in love and then she dies again. By Book 3 I couldn't wait for this girl to die; I was so invested in this girl's many deaths and the idea that so many things play out so differently for so many people based on minor everyday occurrences. Obviously the girl's death isn't a "minor everyday occurrence," but the choices that are made that lead to her death always are, and then the next book picks up as if one of the characters had simply made a different choice that wound up saving the girl's life.
Amazingly, spectacularly, through all of this, no one is ever named. I know everything about this girl and her family for four generations—except any of their names. Pre-war and post-war Europe are all painted beautifully (and from a vantage point that I had never seen before, to be honest, which is impressive in itself), and throughout this incredible tableau there is a family without names living infinite theoretical lives based on seemingly insignificant choices. It's such a wonderful book. It's so strange and unique and eerie and secretly political(?) and culturally aware and poetic and wonderful. I got very lucky with this book. I could have picked a different book to review, and maybe that review would have somehow led to my death. Instead, I had a highly stimulating and engaging time with The End of Days. This is a very good book.
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