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The Offering by Grace McCleen

The OfferingThe Offering is the third novel about mental illness I’ve read this year and it was the one I enjoyed the least.

It’s a tale of a troubled past told by Madelaine who’s been a patient at a mental infirmary for the past 20 years.  It’s clear that she has recently committed some terrible act of violence, though Madelaine apparently doesn’t know what she has done or why she is in the infirmary. All of this comes to light through hypnotherapy sessions with Dr Lucas, a newly-arrived specialist who  diagnoses that Madelaine has “dissociative amnesia”. He wants her to reconstruct the events leading to her committal to the institution on her 14th birthday.

In the journal Madelaine is encouraged to keep we get a sense of her feelings after these sessions and her discomfort as the hypnotherapy takes her down uncomfortable paths. Her past is revealed as the child of poverty-stricken evangelists who move to a derelict farmhouse in a remote location on an island.  The girl roams the fields, searching for God in a Garden of Eden like the one that illustrates the family bible. Faced with a domineering  father and a mother suffering from depression, Madeline turns to the Old Testament for a solution.

There are some passages of beautiful lyrical writing as the girl takes her rites of passage adventures amongst nature, leading her into  the occasional out of body experience. But overall, this was a disappointing novel. There was much that wasn’t really explained such as why people on the island were so hostile to Madelaine’s father, pretending no work was available for him and then sacking him without reason, or the source of her mother’s illness.

But mainly I think I didnt enjoy this book was because I couldn’t relate to Madelaine in the same way I did with the narrators in Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing (reviewed here) or Nathan Filer’s Shock of the Fall. Madelaine didn’t ring true to me.  Though she says she sleeps most of the time, and is on a high dosage of medication, she has somehow developed a knowledge of medieval mystics. She seems oblivious to her own situation in the infirmary and yet demonstrates great insight when she observes other patients and a clear-sighted, if cynical, view on life and the true purpose of Dr Lucas interest in her case is to boost his career.

Dr Lucas has an agenda and I am part of it: he stands to win or lose depending on the result of my treatment… In any case I have an agenda too, entitled “release’. Everyone has an agenda, its just a question of who reads whose first. If, however, I am to be a pawn deployed to prove or disprove his theory….. then it is crucial to let the mover believe the pawn is a pawn, and oblivious to his intent.

The more the book progressed the less convinced I became by her as a character and consequently not that interested in discovering what happened on the day of her birthday.

The Offering was the third of the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered prize winners I’ve read recently and the one that left me underwhelmed.

End Notes

Grace McCleen is well qualified to write about the effect of religious fanaticism having been raised by parents who subscribed to a fundamentalist religion. She applied to university in secret because education was considered by member’s of that faith to be dangerous. Having gained a first class honours degree and a distinction in her M.A she turned to writing fiction. The Offering is her third novel.


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