Like Madeline, the narrator of Grace McCleen’s third novel, I often talked to God when I was a teenager. Nowadays, I suspect I was merely talking to myself but has Madeline reached a similar conclusion by the time we meet her in her mid-30s? Like other aspects of The Offering, in which Madeline tries to recall the events that landed her in a mental infirmary for the past 21 years, it’s difficult to know. For Madeline certainty is folly and “meaning is a myth, a bedtime story told to young children who are afraid of the dark”.
The novel begins in June 2010, in the aftermath of what Madeline calls “an event concerning myself and Dr Lucas”, who diagnoses her with “dissociative amnesia”. The manipulative Lucas might want to help Madeline but he regards her primarily as a case study for work that will further his career. However, Madeline talks of “blood sacrifice”, it seems likely she’s committed a violent crime, so her versions of the past and present must be treated with scepticism.
Books highlights of 2015
Books highlights of 2015
1/6 God Help the Child by Toni Morrison - 23 April
A new book by this American Nobel Laureate is always going to be an event, and this one has excitement building around it already: it is the story of the way in which the legacy of childhood trauma can shape, and damage, adult life.
2/6 The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro - 3 March
Ishiguro’s first novel in a decade is being billed by his publishers as urgent, relevant, troubling and mysterious, and its central characters are called Axl and Beatrice. We’ll have to wait to find out more
Matt Carr/Getty Images
3/6 So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson - 12 March
The idea for Jon Ronson’s latest offering was sparked by his online identity theft in 2012. Ronson confronted the imposters and began a probing inquiry into public shaming on social media. It looks funny and seriously hard-hitting.
Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images
4/6 Mr & Mrs Disraeli: A Strange Romance by Daisy Hay - 8 January
A biography of a fascinating couple, gleaned from letters found in the Bodleian Library archives. He was one of the foremost politicians of the Victorian age, she the daughter of a sailor on her second marriage. Their passionate letters through courtship and marriage will surely make fascinating reading.
5/6 The Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, edited by Larry Siems - 20 January
A diary written by a Guantanamo detainee, this book promises to be a powerful and unsettling read. Mauritian-born Slahi has been imprisoned for 12 years and has yet to be charged for any crimes.
6/6 Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig - 5 March
A rumination on depression, Matt Haig’s book takes the novelist into personal territory while keeping an eye on the bigger picture: “In the Western world suicide is the leading cause of death among men under the age of 35.” Joanna Lumley calls it a “small masterpiece”.
Lucas makes Madeline undergo “hypnotic retrieval” therapy and read her diary of her impoverished youth on an island with her depressed mother and evangelist father. Entries record the mundane and miraculous, ecstasy and terror, as Madeline explores the family’s farm, seeing eyes in the bushes and searching for God. The Offering captures the intensity of teenage anguish, and expresses a terrifying estimation of its implications, but it also dares to suggest that God can never be removed from the equation and asks: What is God? Madeline describes “visitations” from “You” but God might be nature, the self or writing which is, in her vision, difficult, ubiquitous and essential.
McCleen’s previous novel was The Professor of Poetry (2013) and, with its lyrical responses to nature, propulsive prose and interest in the way words look, The Offering evokes poetry. McCleen is more concerned with language, ideas and emotional power than with narrative.
The novel’s five parts are named after The Five Books of Moses but, for me, there are three phases: initially, McCleen’s ideas were more engaging than Madeline’s story, then intrigue about her past accrued in the middle, before building towards a surprising denouement. Some of the dense, descriptive passages are frustrating to read but difficulty is one of this novel’s enduring themes: “It’s just such difficult experiences that make me certain we are on the right track,” Lucas tells Madeline. Whether this is true or not, The Offering is worth reading because it challenges us to consider the difficulties inherent in writing, reading and remembering.
Order for £15.99 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030Reuse content