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The poet Sandy Beach once wrote, "Memory is a fiendish souvenir." This becomes doubly true when the equally fiendish “perspective” is called into play to evaluate the past. When does the drive to protect cross a line and become neglect? By seeking to shield children from harm, is there the danger of leaving them ill-equipped? Moral gray areas collide with the rigidity of intellect in MADAPPLE, Christina Meldrum’s captivating debut novel.

MADAPPLE centers on the story of Aslaug, a 16-year-old girl raised in isolation by her Danish mother who homeschools her in the ways of the natural world. While her understanding of herbs, languages and religion is rich (if highly subjective), her ability to interact with others is stunted. Aslaug's limited world explodes when her mother, Maren, dies suddenly and she finds herself living with estranged relatives in a nearby town.

Thrust into a new family, Aslaug finds the values and beliefs bestowed by her mother constantly challenged: her manipulative cousin, Sanne, asserts that Aslaug was a virgin birth and destined for greatness; her other cousin, Rune, offers her kindness mixed with temptation; and her Aunt Sara, Maren's sister and preacher of a local church, struggles with a dark secret that may hold the key to Aslaug's true identity.  Matters only get more complicated when Aslaug becomes pregnant and insists she has never had sex. Then, when the bodies of Sanne and Sara are pulled from a fire at the church, clues point to Aslaug and she is placed on trial for murder.

The star of MADAPPLE is Meldrum's exquisite writing, at turns lush and imaginative but also spare and direct. The names of plants serve as chapter titles, employing herb lore as a vocabulary that fleshes out Aslaug's worldview. Meldrum masterfully occupies Aslaug's mind, outlining her protagonist's circumscribed upbringing and revealing a mind hungry to explore but reluctant to venture into a world for which she was never prepared. The narrative shifts between the past, when Aslaug struggles to deal with both her mother's death and the ways of her new family, and the present, when an older Aslaug is on trial for murder. Both stories drive forward with measured tension, forcing the reader to question where the truth lies, until they converge in a mesmerizing climax.

Meldrum draws from her background in religious studies and law to pose potent questions concerning the nature of faith and the sometimes blurred line between myth and reality. Readers will find themselves as challenged by the novel's varied viewpoints as Aslaug is in her own reluctant quest for meaning. If you're looking for something that will generate a spirited discussion at your next book group meeting, this is the book for you.

One of the best books I've read in 2008, MADAPPLE stands out as brilliantly crafted and beautifully written. Christina Meldrum is a powerful new voice, and I'm anxiously awaiting her next novel. A must for everyone's summer reading list.


Reviewed by Brian Farrey on October 18, 2011

by Christina Meldrum

  • Publication Date: May 13, 2008
  • Genres: Literary Mystery
  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
  • ISBN-10: 0375851763
  • ISBN-13: 9780375851766