Thursday, September 4, 2008

Forbidden fruit

I wasn't going to listen to Madapple, by Christina Meldrum, but someone I know pronounced the audio version "enchanting," so I thought I shouldn't miss it. The plot is disarmingly simple: Young Aslaug is raised in isolation by her herbalist mother, Maren. Among the many wild plants her mother prepares and describes to Aslaug is jimsonweed, or madapple -- a poisonous narcotic (check out the wonderful page on the author's website where she pictures and describes all the flora of Madapple). When Maren dies of cancer, Aslaug makes her way to the place where she thinks she will learn about her father -- the charismatic church of her aunt Sara and her two cousins, Sanne (short for Susanne) and Rune. Sanne explains to Aslaug that Maren claimed to be a virgin while pregnant with her. Sanne has doubts that this is true, but wants to believe.

Aslaug -- whose isolation has made her mostly passive and defenseless in the face of those who claim to act on her behalf -- settles in uneasily at her aunt's household. She falls for her cousin Rune, and has a vivid dream of sex with him. Several months later she learns she is pregnant. She accuses Rune of rape, but is held prisoner in the basement of the church by her aunt -- who doesn't want her son accused of rape -- and by Sanne, whose insistence that Aslaug's is a virgin pregnancy grows with each month. Upon the birth of her daughter, Aslaug is separated from the baby. A short time later, Rune and his lover disappear with the child. Sara and Sanne overdose on jimsonweed and Aslaug burns the church to the ground.

The book alternates chapters from Aslaug's perspective -- each of which is titled with the name of a plant which directly relates to the events of the chapter -- with short excerpts of trial transcripts. A year after the fire, Aslaug is on trial for double homicide and for manslaughter -- her mother also had jimsonweed in her system when she died. Things we learn in the chapters have been foreshadowed in the trial transcripts and things we learn at the trial are described more fully in the chapters. It is an excellent demonstration of how to cleverly unfold a plot.

I didn't think it worked well as an audiobook for several reasons. There are lengthy (quite lyrical) passages in the book describing wild plants and subsequently, the instances of virgin pregnancies across the spiritual pantheon (Sanne goes on and on about this at one point). Listening takes so much longer than reading; I really lost interest in the story at these points. I was tense, the foreshadowing worked, I wanted to know the outcome of Aslaug's trial and life -- but before I could get there, I had to listen to (what seemed like) hours of botany and theology. It's so much easier to skip ahead while reading -- even the act of just flipping the pages to see how many you have to get through is helpful. Listening affords you no such cues.

And while I fully appreciated the device of the trial transcript -- and actually found them to be a relief from the more baroque language of Aslaug's story -- ultimately they seemed an intrusion. Their repetitive nature: "Objection! Leading!" "Sustained." "I'll rephrase." doesn't lend itself to reading aloud. The narrator, Kirsten Potter, often found herself interrupting herself. That gets old. She did do an excellent job in vocally distinguishing between Aslaug and the trial transcripts -- her voice grew deep, dry and unemotional.

One advantage of listening: Aslaug is pronounced Ahss-lawg.

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