Review by


Fatal Attraction

A coincidental meeting on an East Berlin bus changes the life of 19 year-old Katharina forever. Across the steamy bus, she catches the eye of Hans, a married author and journalist 34 years her senior. They start an intense clandestine affair, but as passion turns to obsession, the relationship descends into something dark and unescapable. In Karios by Jenny Erpenbeck, one of Germany’s literary superstars, their psychological drama is played out in parallel with the political drama of the fall of the Berlin wall.

Katharina, it transpires, is only one in a long line of mistresses, a fact that Hans does little to conceal. When Katharina strays for a night, sleeping with a friend, Hans cannot forgive her. The hypocrisy is glaring to everyone except Katharina, who by this point, is too far down the rabbit hole. Hans’ psychological torture grinds Katharina to pieces, his own fear of growing old and need for control egging him on. The abuse gets darker and darker.

Every Erpenbeck novel has a political backdrop, in Kairos it culminates with the fall of the Berlin wall. Hans and Katharina represent two different epochs of Germany’s history. Hans, a Hitler Jugend in his youth who carries the weight of that guilt. Katharina, a child of communism and brutal separation of families. When the world expands, Katharina opens her eyes to the west with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation and, ultimately, courage to take control.

Erpenbeck demands a lot from her readers. It’s dense but rewarding writing with numerous references to music, art and philosophy, some of which went above my head. She captures obsession and abusive control perfectly and the anxiety of change. Kairos, a Greek word meaning the ‘right or critical moment’, embodies both the love affair and the momentous moment in German history.

Karios by Jenny Erpenbeck is translated by Michael Hofmann and published by Granta, 294 pages.

Read our review of Jenny Erpenbeck’s other books Go, Went, Gone and The End of Days.

Get Newsletters from Bookstoker

* = required field