The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck

The End of DaysShortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, ‘The End of Days’ by Jenny Erpenbeck and translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky tells the story of the various possible lives of one woman during the twentieth century. The book is split into five stories. In the first part, we learn that a baby has suffocated in a cot in a small Galician town. In the second part, we learn what might have happened had the baby lived as a teenager in Vienna shortly after the First World War. The third part sees her as  a communist in Moscow, the fourth part follows her as a celebrated writer in Berlin and finally, as an elderly lady aged in her nineties living in a care home.

At first glance, ‘The End of Days’ seems reminiscent of the structure of ‘Life After Life‘ by Kate Atkinson, exploring the possible paths a character’s life could take and the varied consequences of these outcomes for both the main character and her family. However, the structure Erpenbeck employs also features an “intermezzo” section at the end of four out of the five sections which rewinds the story and offers yet another alternative set of consequences based on the same set of events but with some small changes which drastically alter the characters’ fate. The result is very original and incredibly well controlled and executed.  I haven’t read any of Erpenbeck’s other work but I have heard that she uses a similar structure in her novel ‘Visitation’ which tells the story of a house outside Berlin and its various inhabitants over the years.

The majority of the characters are not given names and are mostly identified by pronouns or their positions: mother, father, daughter etc, which can get slightly confusing at times on top of the looping structure spanning the twentieth century in just under 240 pages. While the book as a whole is very ambitious and Susan Bernofsky’s translation is assured throughout, I personally found the first and final versions of the story to be the most powerful and insightful.

‘The End of Days’ is one of just two books along with ‘Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage‘ by Haruki Murakami to make it on to both the official shortlist of this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize as well as the unofficial shadow panel shortlist. I believe it could be a deserving winner on the shadow panel shortlist and have high hopes that it may also take the official Prize which will be announced later this month on Tuesday 26th May.

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18 Comments

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18 responses to “The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck

  1. Glad you liked this too. Visitation also uses a literary device to explore history, being entirely set around one house. It’s also worth searching out her two early novels (available in one handy volume). She’s one of my favourite writers.

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  2. I really like the sound of this (and enjoyed Life After Life recently). Thanks.

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  3. loved it! would be my #2 for the IFFP, but I also have the feeling it might be the winner. My favorite of all titles was The Ravens

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  4. I am always happy to discover an author new to me, thank you for the post!

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  5. I’ve not heard of this book or the author but it does sound like an interesting read. Added to my TBR list!

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  6. Pingback: The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck | Jo Doran, Ph.D., M.F.A.

  7. Patty Cummings

    All my friends it seems have loved this book, I guess I better get to reading it. Was waiting to see if our book club read it, but everyone had already read it personally. We are using openbooks.com to get our club reads, you get the book for free and then you can pay if you want based on what you want to pay or not to pay, it’s pretty good for clubs. I don’t know if this book is on there or not, guess I will look there first!

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  8. This one is just in hardback here in the U.S. so I picked up Visitacion which is in paperback. I admit, I did not know this author before she started popping up on blogs.

    Visitacion has proven a difficult one to get into. I’m on my third try, but I’ve not given up yet. I probably should have just sprung for the hardcover and bought this one.

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