#RivetingReviews: Fiona Graham reviews APPLE CAKE AND BAKLAVA by Kathrin Rohmann

A drawing pinned to the wall of eleven-year-old Leila’s attic bedroom shows a tiny dark spot in the midst of a vast expanse of blue. The blue is the Mediterranean; the dark spot, the ramshackle craft in which she made the voyage to Europe with her mother and her two teenage brothers. Leila has also drawn the Syrian flag, her father’s bakery in Damascus, her grandmother’s beautiful garden – and a figure in a hospital bed.

Leila’s classmate Max has had an untroubled childhood on a small farm in the German countryside. He enjoys mending bikes, going to Fire Cadets and baking with his granny. Max and Leila meet when she faints at school and loses the walnut from her grandmother’s garden, which, she feels, gives her a direct connection with the old lady in distant Syria. As Max and Leila search for the walnut he gradually overcomes his shyness and awkwardness, while she starts to open up to the possibility of a genuine friendship.

The walnut represents Leila’s yearning for her grandmother, her father (who is at her grandmother’s bedside) and home. It is hard for a childlike Max, who has never been uprooted, to comprehend the trauma of war and exile; but understanding comes when his granny reveals that she, too, was once a refugee from wartime Pomerania, hundreds of miles to the east. Her own memento is a handwritten recipe for Lebkuchen, which her grandmother gave her mother as a parting gift when the young family fled westwards.

It is often the sharing of food that bridges cultural and linguistic boundaries. So it is in this story, with Leila enjoying Max’s granny’s apple cake, while her elder brothers make baklava for the school Christmas fair. And when a schoolmate reveals that her father wants to open a café in the village, it looks as if there may soon be an opening for a baker from Syria.

Apple Cake and Baklava sensitively depicts the heartache of a youngster desperately missing her beloved grandmother and her home. It gives equal space to Leila and Max, with alternating chapters telling the story from their contrasting viewpoints. Thus we see Max, too, struggling with the difficulty of making friends with someone very different from himself. Despite the tragic background of the war in Syria, the story is ultimately optimistic; the walnut is planted in German soil, and Leila begins to feel that it may be possible to put down roots.

This beautifully written book, in a pitch-perfect translation by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, will appeal to children between about eight and twelve. The narrative is complemented by Franziska Harvey’s evocative black-and-white illustrations. There is no doubt that this book deserves to be in primary schools throughout the UK and, indeed, the rest of Europe. It could hardly be more timely, or more urgent.

Reviewed by Fiona Graham


Written by Kathrin Rohmann

Translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

Illustrated by Fraziska Harvey

Published by Darf Publishers (2018)

Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.

Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.

Fiona Graham, reviews editor at the Swedish Book Review, is the translator of Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947: When Now Begins (Scribe UK), longlisted for the 2018 Warwick Women in Translation award and the 2019 JQ Wingate Prize. She is a graduate of New Books in German’s programme for emerging literary translators.

Read Fiona Graham’s #‎RivetingReview of THE STORYTELLER by Pierre Jarawan

Read Fiona Graham’s #‎RivetingReview of AWAY! AWAY! by Jana Beňová

Read Fiona Graham’s #‎RivetingReview of LIFE IS GOOD by Alex Capus

Read Fiona Graham’s #‎RivetingReview of FLEETING SNOW by Pavel Vilikovský

Read Fiona Graham’s #‎RivetingReview of THE RAVEN’S CHILDREN by Yulia Yakovleva

Read Fiona Graham’s #‎RivetingReview of MARESI: THE RED ABBEY CHRONICLES by Maria Turtschaninoff

Read Fiona Graham’s #‎RivetingReview of DANGEROUS LIAISONS by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

Read Fiona Graham’s #Riveting Review of OUR LIFE IN THE FOREST by Marie Darieussecq

Read Fiona Graham’s #Riveting Review of THE MAN WHO STOLE HIMSELF: THE SLAVE ODYSSEY OF HANS JONATHAN by Gísli Pálsson

Read Fiona Graham’s #Riveting Review of APPLE CAKE AND BAKLAVA by Kathrin Rohmann

Read Fiona Graham’s #RivetingReview of DANCING BEARS by Witold Szabłowski

Read Fiona Graham’s #RivetingReview of BETWEEN THREE PLAGUES trilogy by Jaan Kross

Read Fiona Graham’s #‎RivetingReview of SJÄLARNAS Ö by Johanna Holmström

Read Fiona Graham’s #‎RivetingReview of A BRIEF STOP ON THE ROAD FROM AUSCHWITZ by Göran Rosenberg

Category: The German RiveterReviewsThe RiveterNovember 2019 - The German Riveter


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *