REVIEW: THE TASTE OF APPLE SEEDS BY KATHARINA HAGENA

THE TASTE OF APPLE SEEDS
Author: Katharina Hagena
Atlantic Books
Review: Monique Mulligan

The Taste of Apple SeedsA small girl sitting among apples. It was the cover that first caught my eye when deciding to read this book and it fits the theme well – preserving and savouring family and family memories. A bestseller in Germany, the book has now been translated from German; for this reason, I chose to review this book as part of the Eclectic Reader Challenge 2013.

When Iris inherits her late grandmother Bertha’s house, her thoughts turn to childhood memories of long, hot summers playing with her cousin Rosmarie. The garden was their playground – a place of apple blossoms and fruit whose taste captivated lovers, where redcurrants turned white and where secrets are buried. Reluctant to keep the property, but reluctant to sell, Iris spends one more summer at the house.

By day she swims at a nearby lake, where she reconnects with Max, a childhood companion; at night she roams through the house, wearing clothes that belong to the past, recalling stories her grandmother, mother and aunts shared, and trying to fill in the gaps of history. An elderly man, caught between remembering and forgetting, drops by and shares the beginning of an intriguing story about Bertha, only to forget about it when he next sees Iris. It’s a confusing time, with Iris questioning what is real, what is not; what she wants to remember and what she’d rather forget.

Max stirs up unwanted memories for Iris: memories of Rosmarie, forever sixteen. His sister, Mira, was with Rosmarie the day she fell through the conservatory roof, shattering her family. Mira has since moved away, but when Iris sees Max, she remembers: little things she didn’t understand all those years ago now make sense, such as Mira’s passion for Rosmarie. Her insight extends to her grandfather, a man who returned from the war a changed man, one who was always an enigma to his family.

The Taste of Apple Seeds is in some ways, nothing new – returning to a family home and rediscovering secrets is a familiar theme. The story focuses on the history of a family (more specifically, three generations of women), but interestingly, despite its setting in Germany, steers away from modern German history, apart from some unfinished thoughts about Iris’s grandfather – was he a Nazi? Was he a good Nazi? What is different is the characters – women are at the heart of this story and each one is described as having, metaphorically, certain gifts: for example, Iris’s aunt Inga “shakes sparks from the tips of her fingers”. While Hagena’s metaphors are in some ways confusing (She sparks? Do I take this literally or not?), they were intended to add a certain depth and colour to the characters. Unfortunately, it came across as a bit contrived and I didn’t really find myself warming to any of the characters – they were like fleeting memories or shadows that had little substance.

Hagena writes well, particularly in the way that she describes nature. Her writing is at times poetic and vivid, but at other times felt a little contrived and disjointed. The story itself is bittersweet and tangy like an unripe apple that’s iced with hope and nostalgia, but for me, it didn’t quite deliver what I’d hoped. It was a pleasant enough read, but didn’t leave me with the satisfaction of a really good read.

Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.

Bookish treats: A crisp, sweet apple. What else with this title?