Monday, 19 May 2008

Apple Pips

Did you know there are scores of different regional words for apple cores in Germany? Ask two Germans what they call an apple core and you'll like as not get three different answers.

I don't think there is a single mention of apple cores in the book I've just finished, Katharina Hagena's Der Geschmack von Apfelkernen. But there are the eponymous apple pips, and apple sauce, and apple blossoms, and apple harvests, and apple flavours and scents. In fact, it's a very sensuous book. Heat and cold, dark and light, sweet and bitter - at the risk of being twee, all of life's contrasts are here.

I once heard a German bookseller saying that in this day and age, people don't buy books in response to newspaper reviews any more. If a book is reviewed in Brigitte, though, it's a sure thing. I don't feel quite old enough to read Brigitte yet. Or frumpy enough. But this is a real Brigitte book.

I had a long think about whether to review it, actually. It's kind of fluffy. But then I thought, jeez, you really enjoyed it, didn't you? The characters followed you around for days on end after you finished it, didn't they? OK, it might not be world-moving literature, but it was a damn good read, wasn't it? And you'd recommend it to a friend looking for a good easy read, wouldn't you? The answers were yes.

I bought it because I'd translated a children's book by the author, unfortunately not for publication - or perhaps fortunately, because the world probably isn't quite ready for my doggerel verse translations just yet. And because it was in a big pile at the front of a shop, with a lovely cover. It seems to be at number 4 in the hardback fiction charts too, so I obviously wasn't the only one.

It's a fairly unexciting story, tracing three generations of women in a North German village house. A garden, an inheritance, a romance, a traumatic experience in the past. But there are touches of "natural magic" that reminded me of Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits. Only a lot more teutonic. And there is a thread running through about memories and forgetting - the grandmother with Alzheimer's, the grandfather with a Nazi past, the things the first-person narrator chooses not to remember. The descriptions of the North German garden and landscape are lovingly detailed, very earthy and affectionate. And the narrator is very literate, a librarian who repeatedly comments on her own storytelling, explaining her memories and sources and how she mingles them:

Of course Herr Lexow didn't tell me about Agnes' butter cake. I didn't even think he knew Agnes had existed. I sat at the kitchen table in Bertha's house and saw my grandmother as a child and my great aunt Anna, who never had any other expression on her face than the one in the photograph. I remembered things over a cup of lukewarm UHT milk that Bertha had told my mother and she had told me, that aunt Harriet had told Rosmarie and Rosmarie had told Mira and me, things that we'd dreamt up or at least imagined.

The narrator has a charming sense of humour and self-irony. And the romantic plotline is a real emotional stomach-churner (I mean that in a good way). There's nothing like a good romatic plotline to get you through a book. The novel is very finely constructed, as you'd expect from an author who's an expert on James Joyce. A weepy happy end tops it all off. I'd say full marks for the lay-dies. And sometimes we're the only ones who count.

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