Tuesday, April 7, 2015

book review: The Offering by Grace McCleen

The backstory: The Offering is longlisted for the 2015 Baileys Prize.

The basics: Madeline is 34. She has been in an insane asylum for twenty years and cannot recall the events that put her there, but a new psychiatrist thinks he can help her recover the traumatic memories. The story unfolds both in the present: Madeline's life in the asylum and her therapy sessions, and in the years and months before she was committed.

My thoughts: Madeline has lived her entire life in two very different, but very sheltered environments. Her father was deeply religious and believed and moved them to an island where believed God wanted him to spread the word. Since the age of 14, she's been locked in an insane asylum and hasn't had a visitor in years. To her mind, which in many ways, is stuck at the age of fourteen, she observes parallels between these two disparate parts of her life:
Interestingly, over the years that I have been here it has not escaped my notice that despite their personal difficulties--and sometimes when they have more than enough reason to despair--nearly every other patient is a believer of some sort. There is Mary the ex-nun, Eugene the Jesuit, Robyn, who cries bitterly every Sunday because she will have to wait a whole week to go to church again, and Brendan, who is an ardent physicist and born-again Christian. It has made me wonder whether faith pre-dates mental disturbance or is a result of it. The apostle Paul says that faith is the ‘evident demonstration of realities though not yet beheld,’ a definition I am also aware comes close to describing psychosis, for behind both faith and delusion lies unshakeable belief. The bible refers to the disciples of God as babes, as children, children of light, children of the promise. The description is fitting because children trust.
As a narrator, I was fascinated by Madeline. She's brilliant in many ways. Her descriptions of her fellow asylum dwellers are haunting and wise. As she remembers her life before the asylum, however, there are so many things happening about which Madeline doesn't know or doesn't understand. I don't mean to fault her--her life was so incredibly sheltered that she doesn't have a way of knowing what is happening to her. She lacks the frame of reference. She doesn't have friends. She's homeschooled. Even when she and her mother are out in public, doing something as innocuous as getting ice cream, Madelne doesn't understand why other kids respond to her as they do. In these parts McCleen demands the reader read between the lines in ways Madeline cannot. Part of me hoped the ending would confirm my suspicions about a few things, but ultimately I admire McCleen's choice to not let the reader have everything tied up so neatly. Instead, we must ponder as Madeline does.

Favorite passage:  "Yet the key things, I do not remember. But it is not just I who have the monopoly on amnesia: forgetting is the precondition of existence; we forget to stay alive, filter the necessary, the bearable from that which can't be borne; whether or not we are aware of it, we leave what we have to in the dark."

The verdict: There's a layer of ambiguity to The Offering and its ending that I relished. Seeing the world through Madeline's eyes allows the reader to share her experiences, but witnessing her conversations with others, both inside the asylum and before make the reader understand things Madeline cannot. This duality, and its inherent ambiguities, wowed me. If The Offering doesn't make the short list, I'll be incredibly disappointed.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 272 pages
Publication date: January 15, 2015 (in the UK--no U.S. publication yet)
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Offering from third-party sellers at Amazon (no Kindle edition) or the Book Depository.

Want more? Visit Grace McCleen's website

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