Feb 15, 12
Read from February 10 to 15, 2012
Story: 3 1/2 stars
Naration: 4 1/2 stars
Aslaug was raised in near isolation by her mother, Maren, who was harsh and demanding: withholding physical contact and not allowing mirrors in the house (or even on the car). Her mother home-schooled her in ancient languages and herb-lore but was careful to black out references to the outside world in her books. When she was fifteen, her mother died and the police were called after Aslaug was seen burying the body in the yard. Fleeing the suspicious police and the memories of her mother, she ends up finding her aunt Sara - a Charismatic Pentecostal preacher - and her two cousins, Susanne and Rune. Drawn to her aunt in search of a maternal affection she was denied, ensnared by Susanne’s obsession with the circumstances surrounding Aslaug’s birth, and pulled towards Rune by emotions she’s just now beginning to feel but lacks the ability to understand or deal with, Aslaug is wholly unprepared for the turns her life is about to take.
This audiobook was gripping, disquieting, and complex. I’m not sure I actually liked any of the characters and I felt a bit disappointed by the ending but I was so involved in the unraveling of the story, the quality and structure of the writing, and the elements of herbalism, religion, and dysfunctional dynamics that I put in a couple of marathon listening sessions because I couldn’t bring myself to put it down and although I’ve finished it, I’m still having a difficult time letting go of it.
From a technical standpoint, I found the story to be intriguing and well-crafted. The narrative switches between first person accounts of Aslaug’s life beginning at age fifteen (in 2003) and third person courtroom scenes that take place in 2007 at her trial. These alternating views between past and present move the story ahead in a seamless fashion and keep the tension pulled taut as the listener wonders not just “what happened then?” but also “what’s going to happen now?” The use of herbalism as a core story component was interesting and the introduction of individual plants at the start of the ‘past events’ chapters was fascinating as both literally relevant to the story and as symbolism. At one point in the story the dynamics between Aslaug and Rune reach a point that might make the reader uncomfortable but I found the author’s method of mitigating that possibility through her use of subtle language, dream-like aspects, and the believable characterization of Aslaug’s utter lack of socialization to be uncommonly skillful. There are a few potentially controversial (or at least mature) themes that could present a barrier to enjoying this book for some readers. I found them to be delicately handled and didn’t even quirk an eyebrow but if you are vetting the book for a young reader, I suggest you seek out additional reviews because most of them seem to outline these themes quite clearly. I actually wish I had gone into the story without reading reviews of it.
While I enjoyed the writing tremendously, in terms of overall storyline I would say I just liked this book which usually isn’t a strong enough endorsement to tempt me to re-listen to it at some point. In this case, when I went back to listen to a section to refresh my memory on a name, I found myself letting it play for a bit because there were mentions of things (metaphors, characterizations, foreshadowing, etc.) that I had let slip past me until I had the complete story behind me and could focus on the fine details rather than just keeping track of story-lines and predicting outcomes. I can see there is more for me to discover in the writing. My main complaint is that the ending seemed too quick and easy in comparison with the complex and slow build-up of the rest of the book and the combination epiphany/moral-of-the-story in the epilogue lacked any punch for me.
This audiobook engaged me from the start but there was a distinct point where the character of Aslaug became less of an incompletely formed personality and, through a subtle change in narration that I didn’t immediately notice, became a “real” person or at least was easier to relate to. This corresponded with the tipping point in her story arc where she had enough interaction with people other than her mother to begin to develop her own personality. Kirsten Potter seems to effortlessly capture Aslaug’s innocence, youth, and inexperience as well as the need for comfort, contact, and validation that seems to drive all her actions and Ms. Potter then uses subtle vocal changes to show Aslaug moving forward from that point as her life experiences alter her. There are aspects of Aslaug’s interactions with her cousin Rune and with her aunt that I might have reacted to differently had I read this rather than listened to it because of that skill at capturing the emotional essence of the characters. Maren and Sara are Danish immigrants and when the accent came into play, it sounded very natural. I occasionally confused Rune’s voice with another character but overall found the narration to be excellent.
This book is an odd mix of mystery, bildungsroman (coming of age story), religious discourse, herbal treatise, and courtroom drama and it’s all woven together skillfully and narrated extremely well. It’s one of those books that the more I think about it now that I’ve finished it, the more I like it.