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Review: The Taste of Apple Seeds, By Katharina Hagena. Atlantic £12.99


Iris isn't sure she really wants to inherit the old house. But it's been left to her by her grandmother, Bertha, so after the old lady's funeral, when her mother and aunts have gone back to their lives, Iris moves in. Temporarily, at least.

This is the house in northern Germany where she spent her summer holidays as a child, playing outdoors with her cousin Rosmarie, and with Mira, a local girl who only wears black, with whom Rosmarie shares an intense friendship. But Iris is a grown-up now, with a job in a university library. Mira has disappeared. Cousin Rosmarie is dead. Only Iris is still here. Living up the road, Mira's brother, Max, now a lawyer, deals with the inheritance.

Before her death, Bertha had sunk into confusion, wandering from her bed, knitting crazy, senseless patterns. Eventually she was put in an old people's home. Now that Bertha is gone, it's Iris's turn to wander. As she does, she reflects on her family and her relationship to this place. Does she want this inheritance? Shouldn't it have gone to her mother or aunts? To ice skater Christa, to hippy translator Harriet, or beautiful Inga, who gives electric shocks to whoever touches her?

These three women, and Rosmarie, Mira and Iris's grandparents – all are constant, almost tangible absences through Katharina Hagena's novel. Iris digs through the family wardrobes, remembering. The recollections she lives through contain small domestic revelations and moments of passion so elemental that even the natural world has to respond. Experiences that can change the colour of the currants in the garden, or make the apples ripen on the tree.

Beautifully phrased, artful and sometimes ingenious, in Jamie Bulloch's English translation, The Taste of Apple Seeds is atmospheric and sensual. With some tasty phrases (and just a few little stylistic indulgences), Hagena ingrains the creaking old house – and the book – with melancholy; every word, every place is weighted with memories, and with forgetting. Forgetting is one of the subjects that Hagena keeps circling. Yes, there's remembrance, for Rosmarie; but memory is unpredictable. Forgetting is more certain.