Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen

About the Book


A mesmerizing debut about a young girl whose steadfast belief and imagination bring everything she once held dear into treacherous balance.

In Grace McCleen's harrowing, powerful debut, she introduces an unforgettable heroine in ten-year-old Judith McPherson, a young believer who sees the world with the clear Eyes of Faith. Persecuted at school for her beliefs and struggling with her distant, devout father at home, young Judith finds solace and connection in a model in miniature of the Promised Land that she has constructed in her room from collected discarded scraps - the Land of Decoration. Where others might see rubbish, Judith sees possibility and divinity in even the strangest traces left behind. As ominous forces disrupt the peace in her and Father's modest lives - a strike threatens her father's factory job, and the taunting at school slips into dangerous territory - Judith makes a miracle in the Land of Decoration that solidifies her blossoming convictions.

She is God's chosen instrument. But the heady consequences of her newfound power are difficult to control and may threaten the very foundations of her world. With its intensely taut storytelling and crystalline prose, The Land of Decoration is a gripping, psychologically complex story of good and evil, belonging and isolation, which casts new and startling light on how far we'll go to protect the things we love most.

Review

This debut novel from Grace McCleen is quite a remarkable piece of work. I found it quite easy to read, and finished it fairly quickly. The content, though, is intriguing and this is one of those books that inevitably makes you think deeply and question certain values one takes for granted. All the while, the storyline ensures that you want to know what happens next to our extraordinary ten year old narrator.

Our protagonist is Judith McPherson, a creative young girl whose mother died whilst giving birth to her, and whose father is blindly following a faith which dictates how they should live every moment of their lives. The book opens with Judith explaining in excruciating detail her creation of a “promised land” using pipe cleaners as people, balls of grass as homes, fish from wire, even the sun and moon from tin foil and beads. This “Land of Decoration” exists inside her bedroom and is pivotal to the story.

Judith is being bullied by the insufferable Neil Lewis, who makes every effort to ensure that life at school is totally miserable for many of his peers. When he threatens Judith with drowning her in a toilet, she becomes very frightened and reaches for ten year old logic to save her. She imagines that if it snows on the following day, she won’t have to go to school and face her nemesis. So she uses shaving foam and cotton wool and ‘makes’ snow in her Land of Decoration. And, the next day when she pulls back her curtains, the real world is covered in snow. Judith has performed her first miracle. 

Now begins the real story as Judith comes to terms with her power. She begins talking to God and He appears to be responding to her. No one believes her new found power – not her father or his ‘brothers’ at the church they devoutly attend every Sunday. The tale is tinged with irony in this regard, and also poses us as readers with questions: Is Judith really God’s instrument? What is the reason for Judith’s power? Did she really make it snow? And should she use her power to deal out revenge upon Neil Lewis?
Faith, morality, and responsibility are major themes of McCleen’s debut. She uses these to explore the relationship between Judith and her father. There is something so moving about certain passages which capture the contradictions within our beliefs:
"I looked at Father and knew I couldn’t ask any more. I wandered to the windowsill. ‘Nothing is happening to these mustard seeds,’ I said. ‘Do you think it’s because I don’t believe they will grow?’

‘No, Judith,’ Father said. ‘It’s probably because you don’t know how to grow mustard seeds.’"
McCleen examines what it means to have faith – her poignant passages show how power can cause one to question what is right and wrong; how making decisions have consequences; the ability to accept responsibility for one’s actions; and the difference (or lack thereof) of having faith in oneself and having faith in God.

This is a delightfully simple book filled with complex characters and questions everyone asks about Life sooner or later. The story unfolds at an increasingly fast pace, building up to a truly wondrous dénouement that will have you riveted. 


Review by Bradley Lutz

About the Author


Grace McCleen was born in Wales and grew up in a fundamentalist religion where she did not have much contact with non-believers. Her family moved to Ireland when she was ten, where she was schooled at home. When Grace and her family moved back to Britain she went back to school and her English teacher suggested she apply to Oxford.

She studied English Literature at Oxford University and The University of York before becoming a full-time writer and musician. She lives in London. The Land of Decoration is her first novel.

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