Book of the week : The Land Of Decoration - Grace McCleen

Judith McPherson, the plucky heroine of Grace McCleen’s debut novel, The Land of Decoration, is a smart but extremely literal-minded 10-year-old English schoolgirl. She grows up, as Ms. McCleen did, in the midst of Christian fundamentalists. She has been raised with the guarantee that Armageddon is near

To deal with this prospect Judith develops elaborate coping mechanisms. She imitates her absent mother, who was very adept at crafts. She imitates her father, who is methodical and dour. When she wants to understand why her father does not love her, for instance, Judith makes a careful checklist and ticks off each individual reason

But Judith’s main feat of mimicry is the book’s biggest selling point. As she narrates even the opening chapter, she speaks in a 10-year-old’s version of the voice of God. And her one-room version of Creation is the model world that she builds in her bedroom. She uses brown corduroy to make fields, wire and beads for the sun, a mirror for the sea, tinfoil for rivers and cookie boxes for houses. She also fills this tiny place with human and animal populations

“And I looked at the people and I looked at the animals and I looked at the land,” Judith says, in junior Biblical fashion. “And I saw they were good”

She borrows from Ezekiel 20:5-6 (“a land flowing with milk and honey; it was the decoration of all the lands”) to name her mini-world the Land of Decoration. So far, so good. But at school she spooks her classmates. When Neil Lewis, a standard-issue bully, warns on a Friday that he plans to humiliate her on Monday, Judith is afraid to return to class

So she builds her fears and hopes and dreams into the Land of Decoration. Realizing that snow will close the school, she uses cotton and feathers and all kinds of other stuff to coat the model world in white. And when Monday arrives, guess what happens? Flakes fall. School closes

Lonely, neglected Judith suddenly feels very powerful. Did she make it snow? Did she wreak a miracle? She will gather more evidence, she tells herself, “and then we shall see”

Then Ms. McCleen writes this line: “ ‘We certainly shall,’ no one said back”

All of the book’s promise rides on that one sentence. At the point when it arrives it has been hard to tell whether “The Land of Decoration” is merely adorable verging on treacly, or will become something more. Judith’s hearing an actual voice raises the question of whether she is divinely blessed or scarily deluded

Anyway, Judith’s faith in her omnipotence starts to grow. She devotes herself to fighting the Neil Lewis threat, and her efforts seem to work. Her father is the only person who might notice, but he is too distracted. In a plot twist so tidy that Judith might have invented it, he is a labourer embroiled in a factory strike, and his troubles at work parallel Judith’s at school. The book even gives Neil a nasty, skanky father who is as mean to Mr. McPherson as Neil is to Mr. McPherson’s only child

Ms. McCleen uses Judith as a conveniently uncomplicated young mouthpiece for big questions about faith and doubt. “All the important things, like whether someone loves you or something will turn out right, aren’t certain, so we try to believe them,” Judith says precociously. “Whereas all the things you don’t have to wonder about, like gravity and magnetism and the fact that women are different from men, you can bet your life on but you don’t have to.”

Though Judith often seems much older than 10 — a constant danger with a child narrator — she nonetheless feels wrenchingly real; and you turn the pages hoping desperately that something will go right for her. Ultimately, McCleen doesn’t tell us whether God or coincidence performed the miracles. Perhaps that’s something Judith will figure out for herself, in happier days

The book’s tensions mount in a simple and schematic way, with danger escalating on cue and Judith’s mental state getting scarier, until it’s time for them to stop mounting and for Judith’s little world to become a better place. Then it finds resolution. This particular apocalypse is not what it’s cracked up to be

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