Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Mad(apple) for this book

I first heard about Madapple by Christina Meldrum at a Random House preview, and I was totally taken by the pitch. It sounded weird, but in that way that expands the genre and makes it richer. And the pitch was totally right.

The plot: Oh, what a tangled web. As we move back and forth in the book, we learn that Aslaug Hellig, who knows her own name only as Aslaug Datter, has been raised in near-isolation in the woods in Maine by her mother. By day, Aslaug and her mother gather local plants for food and medicine, and even though I'm not into botany I found all the plant descriptions fascinating. Maren has taught everything about religion to Aslaug, but nothing of spirituality. Needless to say, Aslaug grows up with some very definite but not mainstream ideas of what life is, ideas that are challenged when her mother dies. All her life, she's believed she was born of a virgin and does not understand how it couldn't be possible, especially when she finds herself pregnant but is sure that the only sex she's had...with her cousin, nonetheless...was in a dream. As the book progresses, Aslaug can never be entirely sure what's fairytale and what's religion, what's real and what's a haze induced by schnapps and jimsonweed.

Interspersed with Aslaug's story of her mother, and how she found a new home after her mother's death, are transcripts from a trial. Aslaug is on trial for murder, among other charges, and while those of us who live in the world of cars and grocery stores can see where the prosecution is coming from, Aslaug has a much different take on events.

Why you'll love it: Despite the odd voice and the nonlinear storytelling, I think this is a book with strangely wide appeal. It's realistic fiction, but Aslaug's voice reads like fantasy. There's a murder mystery, but it's also a family story. There's a teen pregnancy, but it's not a "problem novel." I know some readers on the BCCLS Mock Printz committee had issues with the timeline that alternated between the present day and the past, I think the book would not have worked as well without it. Moving from Aslaug's voice to the third-person view in the courtroom brings into sharp relief the fact that Aslaug has not had anywhere near a normal life, is surrounded by many strange ideas on religion, and is struggling to find her place in the world. The writing is absolutely stellar, literary, lyrical where it needs to be and stark in places where it doesn't. One is never certain what's real and what's not in Aslaug's world, but there IS resolution at the end. It's definitely in my favorites of the year so far.

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