Book review - The Taste of Apple Seeds

At the heart of Katharina Hagena's accomplished debut novel, seamlessly translated by Jamie Bulloch, is a house full of memories. Iris, in her twenties, has inherited the property from her grandmother and must decide whether to keep it. After the funeral, she spends a few days there to help make up her mind, but finds herself assailed by memories of her grandparents, their three daughters, and her 15-year-old cousin Rosmarie who died after falling through the conservatory roof.

The house, its garden and orchard are described in loving detail by Iris as she ponders the nature of memory. And through her scattered recollections we learn about three generations of her family.

Apples are a recurrent motif – the taste of different varieties, the bitter-sweetness of the seed, and their smell, which pervades the house in autumn. Iris's grandmother, Bertha, loses her mind after falling from an apple tree, and an old tree bursts into bloom after lovers enjoy a night of passion under its branches.

Some of the most touching passages are those describing Bertha as she loses her grip on reality. Hagena is eloquent on the devastating effects of dementia, for both the sufferer and the relatives who have to witness the disintegration and provide care. She also offers some brilliant observations on familial rivalries, the trading of loyalties and destructive adolescent jealousy.

Hagena paints a vivid portrait of rural life in northern Germany. The languid pace, starlit nights and captivating natural beauty are contrasted with the negative aspects of country living – the endless gossip and the villagers' long memories. Iris is shocked when someone paints "Nazi" on their chicken-house. Her grandfather had served as a Nazi but refused to talk about his experiences. Consequently, Iris has never truly considered his past: "not only was forgetting a form of remembering, but remembering was a form of forgetting, too".

Although Hagena skilfully arouses our curiosity and takes time to reveal the family's various secrets, some expectations might be disappointed. A plot strand involving an elderly villager and his love for Iris's grandmother peters out. For the most part, however, Hagena weaves an enticing tale from the experiences of an ordinary German family, their memories, and the different ways they deal with personal tragedy.

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday