Monday, March 9, 2015

The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck

One woman, five possible lives. The End of Days is Jenny Erpenbeck's haunting novel about a red-haired girl born of a Jewish mother and Christian father in the Austrian empire in the early twentieth century. She dies as an infant in the first book, which begins:

"The Lord gave, and the Lord took away, her grandmother had said to her at the edge of the grave. But that wasn't right, because the Lord had taken away much more than had been there to start with, and everything her child might have become was now lying there at the bottom of the pit, waiting to be covered up."

What happens to her parents and their marriage makes up the rest of that part of the story. The child was not in the world for long, but she has had an impact on the lives around her.

What if the baby's life had been saved? Book II portrays another trajectory for her, this time into her teens. In each of the five parts, she lives longer. Her life plays out against the larger theatre of events through the twentieth century in Austria, Russia and Germany. In the final part, she is in her nineties at her death. The closing sentence (not a spoiler!) sums up the philosophical and melancholy tone of this remarkable work:

"Many mornings he will get up at this early hour that belongs only to him and go into the kitchen, and there he will weep bitterly as he has never before, and still, as his nose runs and he swallows his own tears, he will ask himself whether these strange sounds and spasms are really all that humankind has been given to mourn with."

Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky and published by New Directions, the jacketless dark green cover design--featuring a gravestone surrounded by vegetation--is a good match for the sober and surprising contents. The more I think about this novel, the greater my admiration for it.

Readalikes: Great House (Nicole Krauss); Life After Life (Kate Atkinson); and Aquamarine (Carol Anshaw).

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