When Katharina Hagena’s latest novel The Taste of Apple Seeds (translated from German by Jamie Bulloch) landed in my lap, I was hoping for a similar exquisite pleasure as I experienced when I read Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation. There is a house here too, also in Germany. There are several generations, their stories tangled up around a family secret. There is even a lake. But here the similarities end.
It starts with Iris Berger, a young woman brought up in Baden, who comes to the village of Bootshaven for her grandmother Bertha’s funeral. Bertha has left her house to Iris, and as we wait for Iris to decide whether to accept her inheritance, we find out about a secret that is still affecting the surviving members of the family.
The memories from Iris’s childhood, mixed in with her ideas and half-forgotten facts and tales about her extended family, are beautifully written, and I only wish that the rest of the novel was as good. Alas, as soon as we are back in our times, the whimsical haze of the years past disappears and is replaced with ordinary, often repetitive writing that would be better placed in an uncomplicated chick-lit novel with the plot of a single slightly odd woman finally finding petite bourgeoisie- style happiness with a childhood friend she used to ignore.
Riding around the village on her grandfather Hinnerk’s bike, dressed in her dead aunt’s clothes that seem to be constantly getting soaked with sweat, and periodically dunking herself into the nearby lake, managing to bump into her solicitor and childhood friend-cum-the-man-she-fancies Max whenever she swims naked, Iris seems to have no personality unless she is talking about her mysterious family. Iris’s cousin Rosmarie and her best friend Mira’s relationship is intense and dangerous, and Bertha’s magical garden with its apple trees and redcurrants that turn white is another character in the novel. Maybe the past always seems more romantic than the present, but the difference here is too striking to be enjoyed.
Any Cop?: I struggle to see why this book became a bestseller in France and Spain as the blurb informs us. I’d rather re-read Visitation an extra time to take away the unsatisfying taste of the apple seeds.