The Offering is Grace McCleen’s third novel, and follows The Land of Decoration and The Professor of Poetry. The prologue of McCleen’s newest offering (pardon the pun) begins in Lethem Park Mental Infirmary in an unspecified part of England in June 2012.
Our wise and rather eloquent narrator is Madeline Adamson, a patient at the infirmary: ‘People have been staring at me a great deal lately. I have become something of a celebrity… Their eyes used to pass over me as if I were a chair or a cabinet; now they widen and darken, as if the chair had sprouted arms and legs’. Madeline is both interesting and honest, and it feels throughout as though she is channelling her innermost, unutterable thoughts for the sole benefit of the reader: ‘Now, however, I find I am contented to drift from one moment to the next and if several hours pass in which I have done nothing other than consider my hands in my lap or the birds beyond the window, it does not matter. I celebrate time. I press it into my hands’. She goes on to tell us of the monotony of her life, where some of the only things which differentiate between one day and the next are ‘whether Alice has been cheating at Guess Who?‘ and whether dinner will consist of ‘curried lamb or cottage pie’.
Madeline has been a patient for twenty one years, first admitted for what was believed to be depression at the age of fourteen. Her newest doctor, Dr Lucas, believes her to have ‘dissociative amnesia’, and thinks that a traumatic incident in her early life caused part of her mind to be erased. When she was thirteen, Madeline moved to an unnamed and rather hostile island with her preacher father and depressive mother, and it was at this point in her life that things began to spiral out of control. We learn about her present and past simultaneously, and McCleen does a marvellous job of weaving the two together by way of diary extracts and sessions of hypnotism.
As in The Land of Decoration, biblical parallels are drawn throughout. The Offering also has a lot of themes in common with the former – an incredibly religious parent (in this case, Madeline’s father), a troubled young protagonist trying to make sense of herself and her world, and the eternal striving to please those around one. There is a sense that in both novels, the religious aspects do tend to saturate the plot at times; evidently religion is important in the lives of both narrators, but they do take over other elements in the story. Similarly too, the whole has rather an uncomfortable feel to it. Psychologically, The Offering is interesting, and is sure to startle and impress.
McCleen’s descriptions enable us to cast a vivid picture of Madeline’s world: for example, another patient, Robyn, is ‘blue-veined, whiteskinned, fragile as a bird, hair so fine I can see the skull gleaming through it – is moaning, a meaningless sound we would miss if it stopped’, and of her environment, ‘I am a student of surfaces. I seek footholds in traces, animation in shades, intent in implacable geometry, meaning in the intractibility of metal and concrete and stone’. Madeline’s narrative voice is well built; it is interesting to see the story from the perspective of someone who is at once vulnerable and powerful. The whole for me was redolent of S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep. Unexpected turns are taken, and novel’s ending is clever.