Lentham Park Mental Infirmary has a new doctor on staff.
He roared into a parking space beneath the startled horse-chestnut trees two weeks ago in a low-slung sports car. A door like a wing rose up. Two lucent brogues appeared on the gravel. The door swung down, the brogues advanced. I watched it all from my window.
His name is Dr S. Lucas, he is over six feet tall, speaks with a booming voice and has a laugh that rings down corridors. He has blue-black hair that is swept straight from his brow and piercing black eyes. Staff and patients part before this person like the waters of the Red Sea, from which he emerges without a drop adhering to his shiny suit.
Dr Lucas has come to get results; he changes the systems and he changes the treatments. We see the effects of his decisions through a first-person narrator, a patient, Madeline.
Madeline has been resident at Lentham Park since she was fourteen, twenty-one years ago. She was suffering from depression and ‘psychotic breaks’ following an event which she cannot remember. As there are no eyewitnesses and both Madeline’s parents are dead, Lucas decides to hypnotise her to work towards a full recall of the night she was found ‘dishevelled and incoherent’.
When she was thirteen, Madeline’s family moved out to ‘the island’. Her father thought the need for preachers was ‘great’ there. He was a ‘zealous’ Christian. ‘My father had his own faith, a creed of one.’ There is only the three of them – Madeline, her mother and father – and their dog, Elijah. Life on the island is hard for them; the banks are on strike so Madeline’s father has difficulty cashing cheques; the locals find them odd, and Madeline’s father has difficulty finding work.
As life gets harder, her father becomes stricter and her mother slides into depression. Madeline is desperate to find God, believing he can help them if she does so. The moment she thinks she’s discovered him coincides with her sexual awakening. Soon, she is making sacrifices to him to try and protect their family.
Events on the island are told through Madeline’s hypnosis sessions and, later on, the journal, which she wrote during her time on the island and which Lucas forces her to read. Her recall of that time is interspersed with events at Lentham Park, most of which are a direct result of Lucas’ intervention.
The Offering considers two heavy subjects – religious devotion and mental health care – but does so without casting judgement or leaving the reader in complete despair. (Although McCleen does suggest there might be similarities between the two things.) This is mostly due to McCleen’s excellent writing which is crisp and precise when necessary but often lyrical and soaring, particularly when describing the island:
Before the dew had dried each morning, the sun appeared to be pulsing. Small breezes faltered and expired. The horizon was hazy, the ground scorching. Only late in the day did the heat lessen a little, shadows ticking by at the base of the pine as the sun slipped lower, warmed lips and eyes, flared sudden through apple tree boughs, lit grasses and leaves and dragonfly wings, as if concealed within each was a living coal, and veins held not sap but blood; skeins of jewel and flame.
The only problem I had with this novel is an event near the end which felt unnecessary. It was a jolt from what had gone before and, although it wasn’t completely implausible, it didn’t seem to have been sufficiently signposted throughout the book for me to really believe it. It was a shame because otherwise I think this is a very good book. It’s well structured and paced; the journal entries felt realistic; Madeline is an engaging narrator, and the story of her family and her coming-of-age were interesting and unusual.
As with some of the other writers longlisted for this year’s Bailey’s Prize, I’ve had McCleen’s earlier novels on my shelf for some time but have never got round to reading them. I’ll be remedying that shortly.
The Offering has also been reviewed by fellow Bailey’s Prize shadow panel member Eric on his blog.