Review: The End of Days – Jenny Erpenbeck

From where she sat today, she cast a critical glance at the peace-loving girl she had once been. She had understood even then that there was a difference between the blood that flowed during a revolution and the blood that was spilled in a war. She also knew that all wars are not created equal. (122)

The End of Days is a thoughtful and evocative read that traces the many and potential lives of one woman over the course of the twentieth century. It is a book that asks readers to think about the ways in which their relationships with other people—family, friends, strangers—can shape their lives. 

The story opens during the slow decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A young mother mourns the passing of her infant daughter, while her own mother and grandmother clear the child’s belongings and make the appropriate arrangements. It soon become clear that stories of loss, both told and untold, shape the young mother’s life. But then it asks readers to think: what might have happened if the baby didn’t die?

Following the infant through a series of potential lives, The End of Days follows a tumultuous historical period, that is rich in significance for contemporary readers. The fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the devastation of World War I, the impact of Spanish Influenza, the rise of Fascism and the horrors of the Holocaust, even the uncertainty of the Stalinist Purges are explored across a number of different iterations of the same life.

The story positions readers to consider the ways in which their understanding of their subjectivity—that is, who they are in relation to power, social, economic, and political—can be impacted by the knowledge they may or may not have about their own family context. The language is thoughtful, and the use of repeated phrases and images between the stories serves to tie the potentialities of this existence together. The focus on women’s relationships becomes the scaffold upon which the story is built. It allows explorations of Ashkenazi Jewish identity (which is matrilineal), particularly through the intermittent use of Yiddish, often referred to as the mame loshn or “mother tongue”. This also allows for a consideration of the Penelope story: what happens to the women who stay behind to mind the hearth?

Although The End of Days is a largely diegetic novel it maintains a fast pace, pushing wave-like through time-line after time-line, one possibility flowing on from the previous one. It was a fast and engaging read, and particularly as the book started progressing through the socio-political context of the 1930s, and I was reminded of the different ways in which we can resist the politics of exclusion that is currently experiencing a resurgence. The End of Days is an exercise in rebuilding.


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