cover image The End of Days

The End of Days

Jenny Erpenbeck, trans. from the German by Susan Bernofsky. New Directions, $23.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2192-4

This beautiful and ambitious novel by German writer Erpenbeck (Visitation) explores the many paths life can take. A baby girl dies accidentally in a small Eastern European town during the early years of the 20th century, spinning her family into disarray. But what if she had survived? Divided into five sections, each of which imagines a possible endpoint for the nameless female protagonist, the book begins with her death as an infant in Galicia, in the Hapsburg Empire, and spans nearly a century. The second section finds the teen girl living in wartime Vienna, hungry and rebellious. Her fate will hinge on an anguished stranger whom she meets after a heartbreak of her own. In the third section, she has left Vienna for Moscow, where she is an impassioned Communist worrying about her husband’s arrest and fighting to secure her own place within the party. The story concludes with two more possibilities for her as she continues life in Russia and Berlin. Erpenbeck’s graceful prose suits the understated tone of this Hans Fallada Prize winner, whose historical and political breadth could be stretched to unbelievability in less dextrous hands. The novel elegantly frames our human instinct to reimagine endings and tragedies as barely remembered moments over the course of a lifetime. (Nov.)