It’s challenging for an author to write a novel from the point of view of someone in a state of psychosis. There is the danger of romantically characterizing them as being simply misunderstood in their unique perspective of the world. Of course, sometimes this is true and people are institutionalized for the wrong reasons. Yet when representing it in fiction simulating their perspective runs the risk of seeming patronizing and disrespectful to the cruel reality of mental disability. It can easily run into “aren’t we all a bit wacky?” territory. Grace McCleen skilfully avoids doing this by writing her narrator Madeline as being canny and withholding to both the psychologist who treats her and the reader of this novel. In doing so, her character retains an essential integrity.
Madeline is a woman in her mid-thirties who has been in a mental infirmary for over twenty years. We first encounter her in the summer of 2010 where she’s looked upon with fear by the staff around her. It seems she’s committed a heinous crime, yet she seems unaware of any wrongdoing. The novel traces the months leading up to this point by showing her treatment under a doctor who tries to use hypnotism to get her to confront her past. But Madeline is a career patient who has learned to modify her answers when necessary and reveal only what she knows the doctor wants to hear. Interspersed with her sessions we’re given accounts of Madeline’s childhood through her memories and diary entries. When she was a girl her fundamentalist Christian parents move to an island where they hope to convert and save the population. But this horrendously backfires as they are treated with suspicion and shunned to the point where they become quite desperate to maintain a home and livelihood.
It’s touching the way Madeline naturally fears the other children on the island when they first move there and takes their silent observation of her as a damning judgement. She’s granted no chance for social interaction as she’s homeschooled by her mother. The lessons break down as her mother increasingly suffers from her own mental and physical problems leaving Madeline to formulate her own theories about the way her father’s religious ideas can be incorporated into the real world. In the places they move to there are leftover images of Christ and a statue of the Virgin which the father destroys because ‘We don’t need idols,’ my father said. ‘We’ve got the real thing.’ Madeline assimilates this belief about having a direct communication with God into the way she interacts with the nature around the farm they move to. She tragically misinterprets natural stages of human development as having religious significance and formulates her own beliefs about what God wants offered to please Him.
While I enjoyed the way McCleen develops her characters and elements of the storyline, there’s an intriguing plot point which I felt wasn’t really followed through with. When the family move to their farm a strange man suggests to them that a former owner who committed suicide on the property is still there. While I’m glad the novel didn’t turn into a kind of ghost story, it felt like this detail could have been incorporated more into Madeline’s increasingly skewed perspective of reality and the elements around her. What McCleen does most effectively is depict the deterioration of Madeline’s relationship with her mother and father. Communication breaks down as she slips increasingly into her own abstracted reality while they must face a slide into poverty which could leave them desolate.
This novel reminded me somewhat of Claire Fuller’s recent novel Our Endless Numbered Days because it shows the way a particularly fanatical parent can traumatically impact their adolescent offspring. In both books a child is removed from the social environment where they were exposed to a plethora of points of view and physically isolated so their perspective of the larger world is damagingly narrowed and their memories become distorted. Although these are extreme examples, both stories have universal meaning particularly because they show the way a dominant patriarchy both subtly and forcefully tries to psychologically enforce dogmatic rules upon women. In the case of “The Offering”, Madeline is subject to both her father’s stringent religion in adolescence and Doctor Lucas’ rigorous new psychological treatment. Both try to dictate to her how she should feel rather than inspire self expression.
“The Offering” is a beautifully written novel which artfully combines different narrative elements which placed against each other offer a unique perspective on memory and belief. Perhaps the Proustian reference in the protagonist’s name is a bit unnecessary. But the novel has a clever way of pairing Madeline’s experiences in her diary against her recollections as an adult. As she observes at one point: “Memory is a strange thing. It doesn’t always retain what we think it will.” There is a fascinating compression of time and experience as the narrative becomes increasingly more hallucinatory. Grace McCleen has a talent for portraying a character that eludes being defined as a certain sort of person, but who nonetheless has convictions which she nobly upholds – however misconceived they may be. Madeline’s great crisis is that she’s not respected as an individual. More than gaining divine favour, Madeline’s offerings say more about the experience of giving oneself in love and experiencing disappointment. There’s a sad kind of resonance and ominous warning when Madeline realizes that “not all offerings are accepted, not all bargains honoured.”