The group agreed that “The Offering”, by Grace McCleen, was well-written and very readable. The vivid voice of the narrator carries the reader through the story: her description of the natural landscape of the island is sensuous throughout, while her ability to create a sense of foreboding, particularly around the house, garden and the office of Dr Lucas, gives the novel a sinister, haunting tone. The setting of the unnamed island dominates the narrative, with McCleen’s refusal to locate or even name the setting contributing to the mythic, dreamlike status of the island and of the crucial year of Madeline’s childhood around with the story centres.
As a narrator, Madeline is utterly compelling. McCleen recreates convincingly the self-absorbed voice of a young teenager, convinced that her actions have divine significance. She presents an authentically childlike perspective while creating images which are recognisable to the adult reader, for instance Madeline’s “finding God” through masturbation: whilst the narrator may not fully understand what is going on, the reader does. In Madeline’s voice, McCleen captures the childish ability to find mysticism and beauty in the mundanity of everyday life: “petrol flowers” in dirty puddles, tree sap as “skeins of jewel and flame”. The device of the diary to allow both the reader and the older Madeline into the mind and emotions of her young self is effective, we noted that the style of prose in the diary entries was strikingly similar to that of the rest of the novel. This emphasises Madeline’s stasis, the fact that she has been unable to develop emotionally following her adolescent breakdown. However, we discussed the idea that this notion of stasis jars somewhat with the repeated suggestion that young Madeline is a different girl to our adult narrator, one who she rediscovers over the course of the novel, referring to her as “the girl whose journal this is.” Some were similarly confused by Madeline’s comments that “I am not the person I was”, that she has lost her religion etc, despite the fact that she has supposedly failed to change: “the past ended on…[her] fourteenth birthday… [a]ll that has happened [since] is that [her] cells have succeeded in reproducing themselves”.
The end of the novel feels inevitable while avoiding cliché and retaining the ability to shock. Although Madeline’s circumstances – her isolation, her mother’s illness and death, her father’s volatility and unemployment – are undeniably unfortunate, it is notable that her ultimate crisis comes from within. Many of us found ourselves expecting the inevitable breakdown to result from external trauma or abuse, as is common in fictional accounts of mental illness. McCleen’s novel stands out in its presentation of a mind destroying itself: Madeline’s internal and external damage is almost entirely self-imposed. This makes the story especially intimate, we are utterly absorbed in Madeline and what she does to her self: her masturbation, her self-harm, the effect on her own mental state of her religious obsessions.
The honesty and intimacy of Madeline’s narrative makes it easy to be drawn into her world. We were touched by the tender moments of connection with her mother, angered by the behaviour of her father and Dr Lucas. This intimacy makes it easy to buy Madeline’s version of events, despite her instability. This makes her a fascinating narrator: beguiling, compelling, yet possibly unreliable. McCleen makes this conflict explicit in the text, having Madeline acknowledge her position: “Alright, so I am an inmate in an asylum for the mentally unstable, but what is sanity anyway?”
In large part due to the unreliability of Madeline as a narrator, one of the strengths of “The Offering” lies in the questions that it leaves unanswered. As much of our discussion focused on the ethics of caring for the severely mentally ill as it did on literary analysis. Madeline lacks capacity, and hence undergoes treatment against her explicit wishes. The reader is led to sympathise with her feeling of violation, she presents herself as vulnerable, a victim, complaining: “the worst of this therapy is knowing Lucas will find out things I do not give him permission to while I am asleep.” How should this best be understood? Should the actions of Dr Lucas be interpreted as those of the self-interested, voyeuristic and even sadistic figure that Madeline paints him as? Or should they be seen as an ultimately well-intentioned, if unsuccessful, attempt to treat a young woman whose illness has left her frozen in adolescence? Madeline’s tendency to see divine conspiracy around her is well-established: has Dr Lucas simply been unfortunate enough to be cast in a Satanic role by our unstable narrator, or is he genuinely being cruel to patients like Madeline and Brendan? Our group was divided on this issue, but the lack of a clear cut answer to such questions ensures that “The Offering” stays in the mind long after the final page has been turned.
The Close Encounters Book Group was formed in 2007, by Barbara Graham, in the hope of helping her friend Olivia Fitch acclimatise herself to life in small town Loughborough, after leaving London and her two Book Groups behind!
The name arose from the inaugural meeting, when, as people do when meeting each other for the first time, we were discussing our favourite films, as well as novels. In a seminal moment, one particular member spent some time telling us all that she always felt moved to tears, by the emotional end of ‘Close Encounters’……somewhat puzzled, we all nodded, trying to be polite, and indeed, trying desperately to remember the closing scene of Close Encounters of the Third Kind….sensing our bafflement, she finally realised her mistake – she had, of course, intended to refer to the end of’ BRIEF ENCOUNTER’! Ice broken, we had our group’s name, which has stuck ever since.
Members have come and gone over the years, but the key four founder members have stuck fast. Our nucleus consists of public service employees, including a criminal lawyer, a social worker, a physiotherapist, and a consultant for the Carers’ Association. Our teenage children join us on occasions, if the book tempts them, or University holidays coincide with meetings, which always brings a fresh dynamic to discussions.
We have read tiles as diverse as Crime and Punishment and One Day. We have had a Spanish Civil war theme, and even read the Booker long list in 2010 – a particularly challenging year!
The worst book we have EVER read, by a country mile, was The Last Lecture by the implausibly named Randy Pausch! A resounding nul points across the board and very possibly, the worst book ever written.
Our marking system is somewhat idiosyncratic, but we do have a record of all books read over the years and our thoughts.
We are proud to have stayed together over the years, and proud to be assisting the Judges in their assessment of ‘The Offering’.