Author: Christina Meldrum
Length: 404 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Aslaug lives an isolated life in Maine with her eccentric and abusive mother, Maren. Though Aslaug is bright and observant, Maren has kept her ignorant of many things, including the identity of her absent father. Her mother’s sudden death plunges her into a world of confusion. When she finally discovers a connection to her past, her life is turned upside-down, and everything she thought she knew is suddenly challenged.
I absolutely loved this book. In some ways, I’m not surprised to see what a low Goodreads rating it has. It’s as much a complex intellectual exercise as it is a novel, and it’s not written like a YA novel at all. Maybe that’s part of the reason I liked it so much. I found it thought-provoking and challenging in ways I’m not used to seeing in fiction.
Going in, know this: Madapple is not for the faint of heart. It deals with some of heavy subject matter: child abuse, alcoholism, underage sex, rape, and potentially sensitive religious topics, among other things.
Christina Meldrum splits the narrative between an ongoing series of courtroom cross-examinations which take place in 2007, and Aslaug’s first-person, present-tense narration, mostly set in 2003. Maybe it’s just because I’ve worked in a law office and have transcribed my fair share of courtroom proceedings, but I found this stylistic choice extremely compelling. At first, the trial was the only thing that made me want to keep flipping pages. As the story progressed, however, I found myself more and more invested in Aslaug and hoping that this time, her side of the story would come through.
The back-and-forth also made it clear that Aslaug was a potentially unreliable narrator. She was likable and articulate, but her grip on reality—at least as we understand it—was often tenuous. Not common in YA, to say the least!
Nevertheless, the world through her eyes was beautiful, if sometimes frightening. She made for a very sympathetic and interesting character: an intelligent, curious, and determined young girl, but one who is also vulnerable, naive, obedient and gullible to a fault.
It’s wonderful to see another YA novel exploring the complexities of a strained, unhealthy mother-daughter relationship. Here, Maren—a stern, controlling woman in failing mental and physical health—is both her daughter’s captor and her protector. Aslaug fears her, respects her, admires her, and hates her all at once. Though she rarely received any affection from Maren, and though Maren mistreats her, she clings to what she can get:
“Wait,” she says, and drags herself and her sapientia to me. She presses her scaly palm against my cheek. “You’re feverish,” she says. “You feel feverish, Aslaug.”
“I’m just hot from the trip back,” I say. “Not feverish. I have some indigestion. It’s nothing, Moder. Don’t worry.”
But she is worrying, and I feel a tinge of satisfaction in seeing this. A tinge of relief. This is mother-love. This is my mother’s love. (28-9)
Aslaug’s grief when she discovers that her mother has died is both touching and heartbreaking. So is her desire to protect her mother in death, despite how difficult their relationship was.
I etch berkana, the rune of femininity and healing, and isa, the rune of winter, to give Mother protection through the cold. I etch tiwaz, the rune for the god Tiw, who represents justice and truth. And cen, or kawnaz, the symbol of fire, to keep Mother warm. And last I give Mother hagalaz, the rune of hail and the rainbow and humor, because humor is something it seems Mother and I need. I write the symbols from right to left, the direction of runic writing. On the back side of the stone, I etch the rune dagaz, the rune of day; knowing Mother will be descending into the earth, I want to give her light. Then I roll the rune-stone near the grave, and I dig again. (66)
Speaking from personal experience, I felt Aslaug’s thoughts represented the emotional turmoil children of abusive parents often go through. She loved and depended upon her mother, regardless of how poorly her mother treated her. Sadly, that’s how it usually seems to go.
Most of the other characters are almost as eccentric (to use a kind word) as Maren, and they use and abuse Aslaug just as badly. At times, it seems that she is the only decent character left in the novel, and I can understand why that would turn some readers off. But the later sections of the book combine Aslaug’s knowledge of herbalism and Norse mythology with other religious and mystical concepts, such as that of virgin birth, which Maren believed happened when she got pregnant with Aslaug. That air of mysticism added a whole new layer to a story that was already quite enthralling, especially as such ideas—virgin births and prophets and Messiahs—are accepted, then challenged, then accepted again by one character and then another.
I feel the need to say it again: especially if you are Christian and are easily offended by your beliefs being challenged, this book may not be for you. I already knew that the Jesus story is not unique, but it might be uncomfortable, even upsetting, for a pious young person to come across that idea for the first time in a book like this.
This passage sums up the whole conflict nicely—that between Aslaug and the rest of the characters, and between conflicting religious and mythological ideas:
I never believed I was this—the divine on earth—yet I wanted to be something. Someone. And Sanne’s theory of me gave me this: a theory of me. Without a theory of my past, my source, I seemed a nameless weed. But I’ve thought back again and again to Rune’s words on that blueberry day so long ago. “Your context may become your prison.” And I’ve wondered of the difference between a flower and a flowering weed. And I’ve wondered of a plucked plant submerged in water, which grows roots anew. Can living, changing, growing things ever really be defined as one thing or another? Am I or Sanne or Rune or the preacher one thing or another? I know Mother’s mind imprisoned me even as it freed me, that it was never one thing or another. And I know I miss Mother’s mind—that I long for those roots that both confine and unleash. (274-5).
There are also a few allusions to and a connection to The Scarlet Letter, one of the books Maren tries to keep Aslaug from reading. Aslaug thinks of her mother as Hester Prynne, herself as Pearl, and her mysterious father as Reverend Dimmesdale—all small touches I enjoyed, since The Scarlet Letter is one of my favorite novels.
Madapple, as a whole, is indeed what its blurb declares it to be: “addictive, thought-provoking, and shocking.” It is also beautifully and lyrically written. It’s almost impossible to believe this is a debut novel. There is something ethereal and haunting about Aslaug’s voice. The whole book fascinated me, but Aslaug in particular: I was cheering for her, and I was sad to see her go when the book came to an end.
If you do pick this novel up, be sure to toss all your preconceived notions out the window first. Try not to judge while you read. There are “problematic” things here, but simply open your mind, and remember: it’s heavy, but it’s fiction. You’ll enjoy it much more that way.