The theory that there are no original ideas, that everything has been done before, has been bandied around a lot in relation to mediocre pop music and, more relevant here perhaps, in terms of newly published books. Although I can point out my fair share of movie remakes and rip-off book plots, I generally hold with those who disagree and think that there is still a bit of originality out there. After finishing Madapple by Christina Meldrum (due out in May 2008 from Knopf) I think that’s even more true.
While reading this novel, I tried to place it in relation to other stories I had read. It reminded me of How I Live Now (especially because of Daisy’s relationship with Edmond in that novel). It also had a hint of the fantasy genre’s penchant for stressing the power of naming and the tone of authors like Margaret Mahy. Most striking was the way that Meldrum controlled readers’ perception of the narrative. The only other novel I have seen that exercises such restraint to such good effect is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. And yet, at the end of the day, Madapple wasn’t like anything else I had read and these comparisons reveal very little about the actual story.
Madapple is Meldrum’s first novel, written while she worked as a litigator. The story starts, as many do, at the beginning. Specifically, it opens twenty years before the core events of the story with a young woman named Maren–away from her Danish relatives, living alone in Maine, and pregnant. Without, Maren tells her older sister, ever having had a lover.
Such are the origins of Aslaug, Maren’s daughter and the heroine of this novel. Immediately after this revelation from her mother, the narrative shifts from 1987 to 2007 in a courtroom where reader’s quickly learn that Aslaug is on trial for murder and tells the court that she has no biological father.
These two segments largely set the tone for the rest of the novel that follows, a tone that I would call both eerie and confusing. The rest of the narrative alternates between chapters set in the courtroom in 2007 (always titled “Solomon’s Seal” for a plant thought to cast away demons) and chapters beginning in 2003 and working toward the trial in 2007 (these chapters are titled for other plants that Aslaug encounters, usually with some relevance to the events of the chapter).
Having set up the body of the story, Meldrum nows moves to what I’d call the beginning of the plot in 2003. It is here that readers begin to learn about Aslaug’s life instead of just her circumstances. Home-schooled and raised by her mother in an isolated house outside of town, Aslaug has little in common with the modern world. While other fifteen-year-olds are experimenting with makeup and going to movies, Aslaug is being taught ancient languages and learning about the various properties and lore of plants found in the woods near her home.
Completely isolated and alone except for her mother’s erratic, sometimes hurtful, companionship, Aslaug is desperate for a chance to escape from her life. That opportunity comes sooner than she had expected, the result of unforeseen events which thrust Aslaug into the world she previously watched from a distance. Along the way, Aslaug finds family she never knew she had and more questions about her own life than answers.
There is more to the plot, but to get into further specifics here is impossible without ruining the quality of surprise and shock that Meldrum incorporates into so much of this narrative. Suffice it to say, nothing in this story is as it seems.
At first, the narrative here seemed choppy–incorporating three different time periods in as many chapters as well as many unexpected Danish words. The more I read, the more the story started to make sense. As the narrative moved forward, to the point where past and future events converge, everything began to mesh together making the writing more seamless. For that reason, I found that Madapple was easier to handle when I read more of it at once. The text here is dense, with a lot of references to religious texts as well as plant mechanics, which do require a bit of time to absorb.
Aside from Meldrum’s masterful prose, her characterizations were interesting. Several of the “important” characters are unlikable but still remain valuable to both readers and Aslaug. At the same time, Meldrum spends a lot of time discussing religion in the text (as can be expected from a novel about a supposed virgin birth I suppose) but it doesn’t get tiresome or overly dogmatic.
By the end of the novel, everything Aslaug had thought she knew is turned upside down. And then it’s turned on its head again. Although Madapple is thin on actual action, it’s still a page turner that left me anxious to see how it would all turn out.
Possible Pairings: All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry, What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishigiro, Liar by Justine Larbalestier, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff