Last year I kept pulling this novel from the YA shelves, glancing at it, and putting it back. It has an eye-catchingly moody cover and an intriguing title, but no cover or inside flap copy. The first few pages, in which two pregnant Danish sisters in America have an elliptical discussion with many references to wild plants, were well-written but did not reveal the genre or even general subject matter. I wondered, based on the title and cover, if it was Genesis retold as a paranormal romance, with Adam, Eve, and Lucifer reincarnated as high schoolers. I hadn’t seen that one yet.

I finally bought the book for a dollar, as a library discard. It was both more and less original than I had thought – not a paranormal romance at all, but a mainstream novel about religious obsession and family dysfunction, with a somewhat unreliable narrator and a plot that kept promising to become more interesting than it ever did.

Aslaug, the narrator, is a girl raised in almost complete isolation in Maine, living off the land with her strange mother, Maren, who gives her a sort of multicultural classical education. When Maren dies, Aslaug flees to relatives she never met before, where she learns that Maren believed that Aslaug was a virgin birth. Aslaug’s religiously obsessed aunt begins to get obsessed with Aslaug, and Aslaug gets obsessed with her hot male cousin, Rune.

Aslaug’s narration, as befits her peculiar education, is dreamy, philosophical, mystical, mythical, and absolutely crammed full of botanical references. But though her frame of reference is odd, she never comes alive as a character apart from that, and other than running away at the beginning, she’s very passive. The main interest in having an isolated character come into contact with society is in examining her culture shock, but since Aslaug only ever interacts with a few people, and those mostly family members, that’s a very minor part of the book.

Alternating chapters are a court transcript of Aslaug’s trial, several years later, for the murders of her mother, aunt, and female cousin. At first suspenseful, these quickly become thuddingly predictable, as each one brings up some reason to suspect Aslaug which her own chapter immediately provides an innocent explanation for. (“I was writing the runes H, C, T, I, and B on my mother’s tombstone, not “bitch” spelled backwards. The symbol I drew in sap on her body was a protective seal of Solomon, not an inverted pentagram.”)

In case anyone’s wondering, I didn’t think the book was preachily pro or anti religion. The religious characters are mostly nutbars, true, but they’re explicitly members of an small, fringey cult, and I don’t recall any anti-religious people appearing at all. My problem with the depiction of religion was that it wasn’t very interesting.

A huge amount of ambition and research, and a reasonable amount of skill went into this book, but the result is uneven. While the early chapters in which Maren is still alive are gripping and strange, the novel deflates when Aslaug leaves her tainted garden of Eden. The excruciatingly detailed realism of the botany got to be a bit much even for me, and I normally love nature descriptions and explanations of how to forage in the wilderness. A number of events are quite implausible and melodramatic: for instance, the outcome of the court case ends up hinging on the proof of an issue which has little relevance to whether or not Aslaug murdered anyone. Aslaug’s abstract, dreamy narration makes her family and the cult-like church seem insubstantial and vague. As for the virgin birth, I knew what was up with that from the prologue, and it never gets any more complicated.

That being said, others adored this book: “Filled with herbal imagery and nomenclature, the descriptions, both beautiful and surprising, paired with the expert control of pacing, make for a riveting and mind-opening experience.” – School Library Journal. “Plot summary does little justice to this haunting book, which is as much mysticism as it is story.” – Booklist.

So if anyone wants this book (beautiful hardcover, perfect except for a “YA” tag on the spine) paypal me a couple dollars for postage and I’ll mail it to you.

Madapple
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