Katharina Hagena's The Taste of Apple Seeds is a peculiar little jewel of a book, a lyrical family novel in which a young
German woman named Iris inherits her grandmother's house. The story is not a plot-driven cloak-and-dagger mystery,
nor is it full of car chases or supernatural villains - the novel is focused primarily on the unspooling of Iris's memories.
As she explores the old North German farmhouse after her grandmother's death, she sifts through family lore and revisits the pivotal
events of her youth. She is looking for patterns everywhere - in the drawers of her grandfather's desk, in the stones of the terrace floor,
and in the order of the books of the shelves. Hagena pulls the reader along with a thread of suspense as
fine and tenacious as a cobweb. As Iris's thoughts circle ever closer to the facts of her own life, and
in particular the tragedy that befell her cousin Rosemarie when the girls were teenagers, even the most descriptive passages are imbued with urgency.
Hagena's lyricism is richly rewarding. Her account, in Iris's voice, of grandmother Bertha's sliding into dementia is beautiful and sad, and seems piercingly true-to-life. There are touches of magical realism in the family lore too - the red currants out back are reputed to have turned white when an aunt died of pneumonia, and another aunt gives off electrical shocks to whomever she touches. These fanciful elements add to the realistic richness of Iris's memories; their magical features stand in for the emotional resonance of events that deeply imprint the family beyond the scope of one generation. What Iris inherits is more than nostalgia, it is identity - a sense of place in time and history as well as physical space.
A German novel can't range back over the last few generations without bumping into World War II, and The Taste of Apple Seeds is no exception. Iris's grandfather Hinnerk was a Nazi; a by-the-book prison administrator who wrote poetry on the side and helped a Jewish neighbor escape to the West. Hagena plays with this history when Iris gets involved in a comical episode involving some red graffiti and a (literal!) pail of whitewash.
But the real core of the book is its sensuality, the unexpected tastes and sights and sounds that it evokes, like the surprising taste of marzipan in the seeds of a Boskoop apple. When Iris goes to the grocery store, we get her entire mouth-watering list, "I bought some milk, black bread, cheese, a bottle of apple juice, and a large carton of multivitamin buttermilk. As well as a newspaper, a packet of crisps, and a bar of nut chocolate for an emergency." The interiors of the old farmhouse are cluttered and full of aromas, and there are vintage dresses to try on and old jars of jam to bring up from the cellar. Even the words, rendered here in a fine translation by Jamie Bulloch, are sensual. In her regular life, Iris is a librarian, a lover of books who collected words as a child in an effort to satisfy her "craving for magical, animated worlds in sleeping things." While some readers may balk at the quietness of The Taste of Apple Seeds, many will enjoy the flavor of Iris's rich mind. Originally published in German in 2008, the novel became a sleeper hit in Europe, and was made into a movie in 2013.
This review is from the March 5, 2014 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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