The Taste of Apple Seeds is a vivid and richly descriptive story in which the actions take place over just a couple of days but evoke the memories of a lifetime and beyond. The narration starts when Iris, a young librarian, learns that she has inherited her grandmother Bertha’s house in northern Germany; the house doesn’t just hold memories for Iris, it’s the house where her mother and two aunts also grew up and one that, like any family home, has seen not just happy events, but sadness too. Before she goes back home after the funeral, Iris spends a few days in the house to help her decide whether she wants to keep it. For her the house triggers a patchwork of half memories but as she explores Bertha’s house, she’s able to start piecing them together and with the help of an old childhood friend and a retired village school teacher, Iris starts to understand her dark family history.
There’s a fairytale element to The Taste of Apple Seeds that makes this such an enchanting novel. There’s a gentle repetition of ideas that joins up the fragments of Iris’s memories so that the story is gradually revealed, building up the dramatic tension. The story here starts at the end but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any surprises; in fact the story telling is subtle, almost drip fed, a style that had me wondering, early on, where the story could be going. With the repeated references to the tragic death of a much loved cousin, Bertha’s dementia and rumours surrounding her grandfather, Iris’s story is slowly assembled but the truth, when it does come, is not always what you might imagine. The sense of ‘other worldliness’ that Hagena creates also contributes to this sense of a fairytale: the recurring motif of apples falling from a tree (harking back to Sleeping Beauty perhaps), Iris’s cautious exploration of her grandmother’s home – now hers – and, not having expected to be away from home for so long, her wearing of her aunt’s old party dresses she finds hanging in the wardrobe. Most beautifully of all is a romantic tryst that causes all the trees in the orchard to bloom overnight.
The evocation of tastes is a key element to the story and reflects the mood of the novel ; apples and blackberries are the fruit of late summer and to me they represented the end of the story, the final fruits of the year, just as Iris finally comes to terms with what it appears she has been actively forgetting. Food plays an important part in the story, both remembered and eaten or prepared. Herr Lexow, the former school teacher, has been tending the garden and keeping an eye on the house since Bertha went into the care home; although Iris didn’t know about this, she feels instinctively when she goes to the house that someone has been taking care of it. Herr Lexow turns up with the makings of a soup, and, over the comforting dish, he confesses to her some long kept secrets. The idea of food as a way of awakening these dormant memories works wonderfully in this story but conversely, there is the use of alcohol as a means of forgetting.
The relationship between forgetting and remembering is a key element of this story. Iris is forced to re-evaluate what she knew about her family, so too is the reader. The truth about what has been forgotten and what has been kept secret becomes blurred and then there’s the truth that has always been there, but not understood. I confess that a hundred pages in I was struggling to see where Hagena was taking the story; was the story about grandfather, or Bertha, or the sisters or poor tragic Rosmarie who died as a teenager? It was really only the magical writing that kept me reading at this point. Being immersed in Hagena’s rich prose is like being enveloped in a warm, snug duvet – a familiar and reassuring place. What seems initially like a colourful but cosy memoir slowly becomes a dark tale of a close knit but complex family that clings together in spite of, but at the same time because of, a web of secrets and deliberately shelved memories.
At the heart of this story is the beautifully depicted relationship between the women of Iris’s family. There are the tensions that inevitably arise between sisters, especially as Bertha’s condition becomes more worrying and her care needs have to be addressed, but ultimately their love for one another and their support for each other at the most difficult times bind them inextricably. Within each generation the women are very different but the bonds of family tie them together; Hagena paints a sympathetic and realistic portrait of a family that is at the same time typical and unique.
At 240 pages The Taste of Apple Seeds came to a close too quickly for me; this was not the fault of a hurried or unsatisfactory ending – if anything I thought the rather predictable post script was the only real weakness of this novel – but a sadness that I had reached the end. I relished the richly descriptive prose and I loved the way the threads weave together as the story moves towards its climax. ‘The Taste of Apple Seeds’ has been a best seller in Germany and translated into many languages: Jamie Bulloch’s translation is word perfect, allowing the story to flow well but not losing a flavour of Germany that is more than just a reflection of place. This is perfect reading for cold winter afternoons: familiar yet intriguing, comforting yet occasionally challenging and highly recommended.
The Taste of Apple Seeds by Katharina Hagena
Published by Atlantic Books, January 2013
Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy.
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