Grace McCleen's debut novel, "The Land of Decoration" paints an original, unsettling, sometimes dark and generally rather wonderful picture. Narrated by ten year old Judith, raised by her father who is a fundamental religious follower of the end of the world is nigh variety, it looks at bullying, both at school and in more general society, faith and the possible rejection thereof and the strength of childhood imagination.
The Land of Decoration of the title is Judith's model society built from bits of rubbish which she imagines as the biblical post-end of the world nirvana where she and her father will again be reunited with her mother. It's intricately modeled including life-like people, and based on their own valley town. Its origin is clearly in the religious views of her father but also represents a safe place that Judith's imagination can run riot, particularly when she is threatened and bullied at school. However, when Judith wishes for snow to cancel school to avoid a promised beating from the class bully by invoking snow in her imaginary world, the unseasonable snow of the following day leads her to believe that she has the power to work miracles.
There are two potential pitfalls here for the unwary debut novelist, both of which McCleen avoids with great style. Firstly there's the issue of a child narrator. Handled badly, this can be nauseating, but Judith's voice is consistently believable retaining charm without becoming overly sentimental. Her struggle to understand the working of the world around her, which is particularly unusual in her case, is moving and realistic.
Secondly, there is the religious content. Her father's faith is of the variety that most of us cross the street to avoid. They are the fundamentalist type who knock on people's doors to warn of the impending end of the world and encourage us to embrace the Lord. It's uncomfortable to read of the power this has over an impressionable child. While Judith believes that she may be invoking miracles, there is always a reasonable explanation to these events in the real world. There's also great subtlety in the handling of how those from her father's church react to her belief in miracles which hits to the hypocritical views here. So too with her father's changing stance that antagonism to their message is to be embraced until it starts to genuinely threaten his livelihood and family. Judith's imaginary conversations with God may offend some while the ultimate rejection of faith may not be others' tastes.
While the publisher's blurb about the author tells you very little, this is one of the few instances where it's well worth clicking through to the writer's own website. There, you will learn not only that McCleen was herself brought up in a fundamentalist religion and didn't have much contact with non-believers and that she was taken out of school at the age that Judith is in this book, but also that she made intricate and quite beautiful model "little people" as a child some which are shown on the site. Part of the success of this authentic voice then appears to be that she has followed the dictum of "write what you know". I checked this out about half way through reading the book and it gave me goose-bumps.
As another slight aside, it's also notable that this is another beautiful hardback edition. It seems one of the laws of unintended consequences of the e-book revolution is that publishers are making hardbacks in particular more desirable to encourage sales. A small victory for the luddites amongst us.
"The Land of Decoration" is a relatively quick read, with lots of short chapters, and with a real sense of tension in the story's development. Yes, at times its dark and unsettling, but its full of charm and humour too and your heart goes out to Judith who is trying to make sense of her strange and complicated world. Perhaps when she grows up, she will write a book as original as this one is.