I’ve written about Madapple a bit before, but I actually just finished it a couple of days ago. (My commute is all of five minutes, so it can take a while to get through an audiobook.) The listening experience was a positive one, although I found myself murmuring “This is such a weird book” more and more as the story progressed.
Aslaug lives with her mother in a rural area of Maine. Her mother has told Aslaug for years that she was conceived of a virgin birth, but Aslaug isn’t quite sure she believes that. In fact, Aslaug’s whole upbringing is strange: she’s kept isolated on the land with no interaction with other people, and her mother seems obsessed with religions (all of them) while claiming to ascribe to none of them. Her mother also teaches Aslaug about the wild plants that grow around their home and how they can be used – for good or ill.
When Aslaug’s mother dies, she goes to live with her mother’s sister, Sara, and things get even stranger there. Sara is a preacher with two children – Susanne and Rune. Aslaug grows close to them both, and they examine her mother’s old papers and explore the possibility of Aslaug’s virgin birth. Things soon take a turn for the worse – the relationships grow twisted, Sara begins drinking, and Aslaug’s stay with them culminates in an act of violence – maybe.
Interspersed with Aslaug’s first-person present-tense narration are excerpts from a court transcript set a few years later. We learn quickly that Aslaug is on trial for something, and the nature of the trial is revealed as Aslaug tells her story.
This is a heavy book, despite the dreamlike quality of its writing. It’s a novel that explores, among other things, teen pregnancy, incest, child abuse, and the nature of religious belief and miracles. It’s full of very messed up people who do very messed up things. Aslaug is caught up in all of it, and Meldrum does a tremendous job of portraying these events through her eyes. Throughout the novel, Aslaug is unsure if what has happened is real or a dream, and as readers, we are unsure too. I think part of what makes the novel so strange is Aslaug’s reaction to it all: we expect her to either lash out or withdraw, and she does neither. Instead, she seeks to understand the meaning behind it.
The writing is very, very good. I don’t think many readers would dispute that. That said, Madapple is not a book with wide appeal. To enjoy it, a reader must appreciate thoughtful, dark, and somewhat twisted stories. I’m no stranger to bizarre things in my genre fiction, but this is realistic fiction, and it’s bizarre in a completely different way. I think it might appeal to fantasy readers as long as they’re aware that this is not a fantasy, since the writing lends itself to an otherworldly feeling. In fact, it’s been shelved as fantasy on Goodreads by many people, which I find pretty amusing.
If you’re looking for something a bit different and don’t mind a leisurely-paced book with more than a shake of darkness, you might enjoy Madapple. It’s a book that makes you think the entire time you read it, and long after too. I would definitely recommend it on audio; Kirsten Potter’s narration was excellent throughout and enhanced that otherworldly feeling that was so essential to the tone of the novel.