“Grace McCleen was raised in a fundamentalist religion and for most of her life did not have much contact with unbelievers.”
Madeline, the protagonist of The Offering, is also brought up in a strongly religious household, but a religious upbringing is all that the author and Madeline have in common. McCleen is an Oxford alumnus who graduated with distinction and is author of three novels. Madeline is a patient in a mental institution called Lethem Park Mental Infirmary, a fact that is in no small part due to her rearing. Her father preached dies irae from the Old Testament, and her mother had a predilection for depression.. These aspects, combined with Madeline’s isolation. are not the best prerequisites for a healthy development.
The novel is written in the first person, which makes the reader question how accurately Madeline’s situation is represented. She perceives her father and Dr. Lucas, her psychiatrist, to be bullies, but there is an underlying sense that she suffers from arrested development in addition to her dissociative amnesia. McCleen uses an abundance of rhetorical questions that are sometimes more reminiscent of an angst ridden teenager than a woman in her mid-thirties. This would be annoying if it weren’t used as a technique to demonstrate Madeline’s various mental problems; as such, it is very effective. Another technique that seems jarring but fits the world of the mental institution built by McCleen is the use of awkward-sounding similes, such as: “The words were like a chain that kept revolving.” The advantage hereof is that clichés such as a “broken record” are avoided while retaining a discernible meaning.
The novel is cleverly crafted and well organised. The titles of the books of the Old Testament serve as chapter headings in an intriguing contrast with modern psychiatric practices in order to explore the dynamics that faith and psychosis share. However, at times the author gets carried away. For instance, “its silky smell of frying fat, the musty, modern hall” is a stylistically overloaded description of the clinical interior of the institution. The author’s focus on craft also translates as overly explained tangents. The specification that “Lethem” is derived from the river Lethe is sensible because not every reader will be familiar with Greek mythology. Other hints are less subtle. For example, the sentence “I don’t remember disliking our town but I do remember feeling hungry while I lived there, though not for food.” is preceded by a lengthy description of Madeline’s feelings of alienation from her parents, and how she is highly stressed by her new environment. As a result, the quoted line loses forcefulness because the implication is too overt. Thankfully, instances like this are rare.
Another irritating theme is the near-Freudian emphasis on misunderstood sexuality. McCleen explores the effects of lack of information due to excessive religiousness. Madeline discovers masturbation by accident, and is convinced “I can make God come to me”. This happens before her first period, which, when it occurs, is interpreted as “I had found not God, but sin.” As with the odd similes, this works very well in the context of psychoanalysis. Madeline’s obsession with sin is rendered evident when she begins making blood sacrifices in order to rectify the various mishaps her family encounters, which means her mental illness is at least in part due to religious extremism.
Overall, The Offering is not very accommodating, but highly engaging because of it. Barring the odd, overly crafted sentence, the novel meanders on the cusp of insanity just like its protagonist. This is complemented by verbose, lavish descriptions, which are firmly rooted in realism – and like its protagonist, the novel will jealously defend its secrets. Expect to be challenged.