The Offering by Grace McCleen

30th Mar 2015

The Offering by Grace McCleen
An intense and unflinching look at at the intersection between mental illness and religious zeal, drawing on the author's own experience of a fundamentalist Christian upbringing.

Longlisted for the 2015 Bailey’s Prize, Grace McCleen’s third novel follows Madeline who, at the age of fourteen, suffered something so traumatic that it results in her being incarcerated in a mental infirmary. Twenty years later, the paternal Dr Lucas thinks he is able to rehabilitate Madeline and cure her subsequent amnesia using his new therapies. The novel alternates between Madeline’s teenage flashbacks and her life on the ward.

McCleen’s writing hinges on her description and in one particularly vivid passage Madeline begins to describe the cover of her parents’ copy of the bible which made a big impression on her:

‘There was a harmony in the way the scene arranged itself that suggested a theatre, each view giving on to a fainter one, and that on to a fainter one still, till the whole regressed into a ghostly vista of infinite depth like theatrical flats on a stage – yet the creepers and canopies cavorted in lusty confusion, the trees reaching sinuous fingers (frantically, ecstatically: I could never decide) towards the reader.’

Madeline’s reasons for thoroughly examining the bible are slowly revealed. There is a clear link between religion and the reason Madeline is in the institution; she starts to believe that by making offerings she is showing her loyalty to God, resulting in better times for her parents. Her patriarchal father is very religious but isn’t able to keep a job, culminating in a dysfunctional and upsetting family life.

Madeline’s parents moved to an island a year before her breakdown. Teenage Madeline’s diary is written using very mature language but, as her mother points out, she doesn’t have any friends her own age and is home-schooled. Perhaps a thirteen year-old growing up in an evangelical environment without any contemporaries would write like this in her diary:

‘Dear God, The blue has finally come back. When I get up the sunlight is like a needle over the rim of the hills and there is a mist of water at the corners of the window-panes. The air feels clean.’

Madeline questions Dr Lucas’ methods in a way that is reminiscent of her teenage hatred for ‘the man who is technically [her] father’. And the conversations between the protagonist and her doctor number amongst the strongest parts of the novel.

However, Dr Lucas’ new therapies essentially seem to be hypnosis and urging Madeline to look at her old diary, which she has kept but never read. If Madeline has been in an institution for so many years, then why are these techniques only just being attempted? Madeline’s intervening years are, for the most part, ignored.

Mental illness in the novel is presented somewhat problematically as a stance against authority. This is seen in Brendan, a mute patient, who one day howls and gets other patients worked up and is punished for his behaviour. Moreover, it is never clear what Madeline is suffering from, but she is clearly dangerous.

The Offering boasts an interesting structure, as most of the tense events occurred many years before. The ending has happened before the reader first meets Madeline, and McCleen handles her structure well.

The novel’s end is harrowing. The lead up to it is in equal parts inevitable and horrific. The novel’s end is harrowing. The lead up to it is in equal parts inevitable and horrific. The gradual and tense lead-up to Madeline’s denouement is well-written; it is easy to empathise with her varying states of mind.

The Offering will appeal to fans of Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes the Flood. There is a haunting uneasiness to both novels’ characters and both are written using a colourful, meandering prose. The Offering is not a novel of redemption; instead it bleakly takes to heart Philip Larkin’s line, ‘they fuck you up, your mum and dad’.