The Offering by Grace McCleen
I adored Grace McCleen's earlier novel The Land of Decoration, and The Offering similarly has as its protagonist a young girl growing up in relative isolation with religious fundamentalists, deeply confused about what she believes to be her relationship with God.
Told partly from the point of view of the adult Madeline, now in a psychiatric institution and undergoing hypnosis at the direction of an ambiguous, almost sinister doctor, and partly in flashback, it's the story of Madeline's family's spiral of tragedy during the year they spent trying to make a life for themselves on a small farm on an unnamed island off the coast of England.
This is, from the outset, a somewhat unsettling novel, with a powerful sense of foreboding that hangs over both the past and present narratives, rather like the shadowy presence of the judgemental, threatening Old Testament God Madeline's father has taught her to fear. Darkness is always just around the corner, even when Madeline speaks of her love of the island and its natural landscape, or her touching bond with her dog Elijah, effectively her only friend. As the family sink into poverty and resentment, it's impossible not to share Madeline's own bitter anger at her father's stubborn insistence that God will provide, not to mention his dismissal of his wife's obvious suffering as she begins to succumb to depression, his beliefs as rigid as his temper is volatile. Meanwhile, in the present day there are obvious parallels between Madeline's father and Dr Lucas, the domineering psychiatrist.
Like The Land of Decoration, The Offering deals with the fine line between religious fervour and mental illness - 'hearing' the voice of God, for example, and a conviction that good and bad luck can be created and prevented by one's own actions, as well as a disturbing sense of low-level paranoia that comes from a genuine fear of the temptations of Satan. Entirely isolated from her peers (and indeed, terrified of them) the twin burdens of guilt and responsibility that weigh down on Madeline's shoulders are almost painful for us to read about, let alone for a 13-year-old girl to bear without lasting psychological damage.
Throughout the novel Grace McCleen weaves together the vivid, evocative prose of Madeline's suppressed memories and the drab institutional ugliness of the psychiatric hospital with a strong thread of lurking unease and, despite everything, the occasional spark of wry, observant humour. As befits a novel told from the point of view of a severely disturbed and presumably constantly medicated psychiatric patient, there is a slightly dream-like, drifting quality to certain sections, while others have a sense of very concrete, mundane reality.
Although The Offering is, undeniably, a terribly sad novel, it is also a beautiful and a powerful one - plus, I found it every bit as a gripping as a thriller. This is a book I will continue to think about for a very long time.
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