I have an intrinsic connection to any story that involves a quirky and imaginative child, particularly when that child is lost and in search of resolution. That is why the story of 10 year old Judith McPherson had me hooked within the first few pages. Far from living an ordinary life, Judith lives with her father in a sparse home with threadbare furnishings and a lot of make do and mend. The pair are part of a fundamentalist religious group and make regular house calls around the neighborhood to spread the news of imminent Armageddon. Judith’s father John works in a local factory where union action is threatened and tensions are running high. Judith’s mother died shortly after giving birth to her, a time which she believes marked the end of her father’s happiness and the beginning of the burden of looking after her. It’s not all as depressing as it may sound however!
A naturally witty child with finely tuned observational skills, Judith is for the most part a bit of a loner with the exception of unrelenting attention from the school bully Neil Lewis. In an effort to cope with her loneliness and her tormentor, she spends a lot of her time collecting scraps from the playground and broken odds and ends which she recycles to create her Land of Decoration – a miniature world complete with pipe cleaner people, a mirror lake and a replica factory. Fearing actual physical harm at the hands of Neil, Judith believes that only a miracle could save her and so she sets about making a snow storm in the Land of Decoration in an attempt to miss school and avoid his clutches. Whether it is a miracle or happy coincidence, it does in fact snow the next day and this in turn ignites Judith’s belief that God is talking to her and helping her make things happen in the real world. From this point on, she create a series of ‘miracles’ that bring both relief from her circumstance and a spiral of events that lead to more trouble than she ever could have imagined.
The author does an exceptional job of finding the voice of a 10 year old girl, and offers a fascinating insight into the power organised religion can have on a young and impressionable mind. This is unsurprising given that Grace McLeen herself grew up in a fundamentalist religion. As a debut novel I found The Land of Decoration to be deep, wondrous, sad, uplifting and incredibly moving. The last few pages took me by surprise and evoked a real physical response in me. I felt as though I had fallen right into the pages, my skin prickled and I didn’t want it to end. If that’s the sign of a good book, then it is one of the best I have read.
Highly recommended – get your copy here
ABOUT GRACE MCLEEN – Grace McCleen was born in Wales and grew up in a fundamentalist religion where she did not have much contact with non-believers and was home schooled in Ireland for part of her childhood. 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 and was awarded the Desmond Elliot Prize for new fiction in 2012.