Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The Taste of Apple Seeds by Katharina Hagena

When Iris unexpectedly inherits her grandmother's house in the country, she also inherits the painful memories that live there.

Iris gives herself a one-week stay at the old house, after which she'll make a decision: keep it, or sell it. The choice is not so simple, though, for her grandmother's cottage is an enchanting place where currant jam tastes of tears, sparks fly from fingertips, love's embrace makes apple trees blossom, and the darkest family secrets never stay buried.

As Iris moves in and out of the flicker between remembrance and forgetting, she chances upon a forgotten childhood friend who could become more.

The Taste of Apple Seeds is a bittersweet story of heartbreak and hope passed down through the generations.

Goodreads Description.

This is not the literary book that the description promises and one might have expected from the writer's biography as an academic who has written a book on Joyce's Ulysses. But if you lower your expectations The Taste of Apple Seeds has much to offer. It is a pleasant, gentle read, with some lovely poetic descriptions. 

I particularly liked the descriptions of Bertha, Iris's grandmother and her decline into senility: Her brain silted up like a riverbed. Then the riverbank began to crumble, until large chunks fell crashing into the water. The river lost its form and current, its natural character. In the end it didn't flow anymore but just sloshed in all directions.  The portrayal of Bertha and her family's reactions to her and her illness were painfully close to home for me. Of course this picks up the theme of remembrance and forgetting that runs through the book. 

The book is strong on the sensory nature of memory - the smell, taste and texture of apples, the sensation of old clothes on the skin and nose. But I felt that it turned away from confronting awkward memories. The memories climax with Iris recalling the (accidental?) death of Iris' cousin Rosemarie. But the climax was something of a disappointment. Likewise there is no great tension coming from the revelation that Iris' grandfather had been a Nazi. He had been sent to a denazification camp, where the inmates had been made to recall and confront the awful deeds of the Nazis, their own and those of others.  There are all sorts of interesting things going on here: about Germany's history, but also about this man who chose to remember the places of his childhood, a childhood that he had hated, in poetry. I wanted to know more. But it is left at that.

Instead the book often focuses on the routine of Iris' stay - what she is buying in the shop, what she is wearing and the possible love interest with a childhood friend. At times it verges on Chick Lit. It also verges on magic realism, but so mildly that I am not sure why. Iris' beautiful aunt born as lightening struck the house gives electric shocks to people she touches. Is that why Rosemarie has her accident? Apples fruit overnight as two lovers make love. Blackcurrants turn white with shock. I know that magic in magic realism doesn't need a reason, but I just wish Katherina Hagena had gone for it: gone for the magic realism and a deeper exploration of memory and motivation. She clearly is a very talented writer, I just wanted more.

I received this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in return for a fair review.

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