The Taste of Apple Seeds - 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, but instead pulsate in the house's nooks and shadows. As Iris moves in and out of the flicker between remembrance and forgetting, she chances upon a forgotten childhood friend who could become more.





Iris is informed she's been left the family home in Bootshaven, Germany, after the death of her grandmother, Bertha. Iris decides to give herself one week to live in the house and decide whether to keep or sell the place. Not an easy decision for our Iris... while she remembers a certain enchantment about the place during her childhood years, she acknowledges that the land also holds plenty of painful memories for the family. 


What I particularly loved about my job was rooting out forgotten books, books that had been sitting in the same spot for hundreds of years, probably never read, covered with a thick layer of dust, and yet which had outlived the millions of people who hadn't read them.


Iris, now a librarian (there are a number of Shakespeare references woven into the story), thinks on how the house has been minimally maintained all these years as Bertha slowly wilted away in a nursing home under the weight of progressing dementia. During her stay this time around, Iris learns long-hidden stories about the family, one being that of Aunt Inga. Inga, almost from birth, seemed to have the ability to shoot currents of electricity from her fingertips... but it wasn't really much of a gift for her, as it ended up hurting anyone who touched her. She also couldn't ride bicycles because of the metal and couldn't listen to radios because they'd only produce static noise around her. 



Later, I moved on to collecting words and mining the crystalline realms of hermetic poetry. But behind all this collecting was the same craving for magical, animated worlds in sleeping things. When I was a child I had a vocabulary book where I kept special words... they were listed under the following categories: "beautiful words", "ugly words", "false words", "contorted words", and "secret words". Under "beautiful words" I had written: rosy, fragrant, pitter-patter, banana, mellifluous, foxglove, lullaby. The "ugly words" were: scrotum, gurnard, moist, crabby. "False words" angered me because they pretended to be harmless but in fact they were nasty or dangerous, like "aftershock" and "growth". Or they pretended to be magical, like "marigold" and "kingpin," but were disappointingly normal. Or they described something that wasn't clear to anybody: no two people would picture the same color if they heard the word "crimson."


The "contorted words" were a sort of hobby of mine --- or perhaps an illness. Maybe it amounted to the same thing. My favorite animals included the "hippotatomus", the "rhinosheros" and the "woodspeckler". I found it funny to "hoover over the abyss" and loved the line from Richard III that went "now is the discount of our winter tents." I knew what "antidisestablishmentarianism" was, but what was "pantyfishersentscaryrhythm"? I fancied it could be a menacing drumbeat to which one might retrieve one's knickers from the lake.


The "secret words" were the hardest to find, but that was not surprising. They were words that behaved as if they were entirely normal but in fact harbored something quite different, something wonderful. So the opposite of the "false words." I was comforted by the fact that the sports stadium at our school was home to a sweet-sounding holy man. His name was St. Adium and he was the patron saint of word games.


Iris also revisits various family legends and secrets and the stories of how her grandparents got together (the convoluted love story there... something of a ... what? quadrangle? lol), how her parents fell in love (the uniquely introverted way two shy people formed a bond), even her own love life. Iris has to work through some somewhat messy emotions of her own when she finds that a childhood friend, Max Ohmstedt, is now one of the lawyers involving in the estate settling process. Max has a certain boyish charm to his character, even in the way he professes horniness! 


Translated from the original German by Jamie Bulloch, this little story is STUFFED with characters! Just trying to keep track of the aunts is chore enough! If I have this right: We start with sisters Bertha and Anna. From there, a generation later, we meet Bertha's kids -- Harriet, Inga, and Christa. Christa is mother to main character Iris, Harriet becomes mother of Rosmarie, a cousin of Iris' who dies, leading Harriet to join a religious order, don beads and change her name to Mohani. 


A shared process of forgetting was just as strong a tie as a shared process of remembering. Perhaps even stronger... and I realized that not only was forgetting a form of remembering, but remembering was a form of forgetting too.


How true were the stories people told me, and how true were those that I stitched together myself from memories, guesswork, fantasies, and eavesdropping? Sometimes fabricated stories became true in hindsight, and some stories fabricated the truth. Truth is closely related to forgetting; I knew this because I still read dictionaries, encylopedias, catalogs, and other reference books. In the Greek word for truth, aletheia, the underworld river Lethe flows covertly. Whoever drank from this river discarded their memories as they already had their mortal coil, in preparation for the realm of shadows. And so the truth was what was not forgotten. But did it make sense to look for the truth where there was no forgetting? Didn't truth prefer to hide in the cracks and holes of memory? I couldn't get any further with words.


The Taste of Apple Seeds is a rich story with lots of slow-moving detail, giving the reader the sense of going through a memory chest. It's mostly enjoyable but at times can leave one feeling a bit tired out by it all. What mainly keeps the reader invested are all the questions the plot raises, namely the breadcrumbs of clues and details regarding the story of Rosmarie and her mysterious, traumatic death in the house. 


The wounds came with the house; they were part of my inheritance. And I had to take at least one look at them before I could stick the plaster of time back over them.


While a touch of magical realism is woven into the plot, the kind of magic discussed isn't so much that of witches, fairies and such... but more in the lyricism of Hagena's wordplay itself, the way she describes a kitchen scene or a night at the lake... the magic of nature itself, human or environmental. Ultimately, the story ends up being more about family bonds and secrets... how a house can be the vessel of generations of secrets and scandals, but does the strength of those secrets --- the consuming, sometimes detrimental need to keep them locked away --- come from the moment of perceived offense itself OR how much stock we ourselves invest in them over the years, maybe in connection to other unpleasant history within a family? Is that skeleton in the closet really as bad as we've made it out to be, all these generations later?



opening quote from The Taste of Apples