In Grace McCleen’s debut novel, she introduces 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.
One Amazon reviewer said, “I think readers are either going to love or hate McCleen’s book, much like Emma Donoghue’s Room.” (Luanne Ollivier) I must not be most readers, because I have mixed feelings about both of the aforementioned books.
At the core of our tale is Judith’s relationship with her father, who might well be called a religious fanatic. He belongs to a Christian sect obsessed with the impending apocalypse and exhibits a warped understanding of the faith. On one occasion he answers a question posed by Judith, saying, “Because God has promised He will save everyone who deserves to be saved,” (p. 153, emphasis mine) effectively contradicting the entire doctrine of grace. Likewise, the god Judith talks to comes across as moody, manipulative, and even downright petulant. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the book, as Judith and her father superimpose human imperfections on God.
The unique challenges faced by Judith—an emotionally absent parent and extreme cruelty suffered at the hands of school bullies—combine with a weak understanding of God’s character to create a ripe environment for mental instability. From the start it’s clear that Judith is a bit of an odd ball because of her cloistered upbringing, but it is not until circumstances around her intensify that the true extent of her psychological distress is revealed. Judith is a rare bird in literature—a multifaceted child protagonist with a level of depth that makes her seem absolutely real. I desperately wanted to have some sort of power over the course of the plot because I was invested in Judith’s wellbeing.
I am very impressed with the literary quality and psychological complexity of the novel. There are many themes layered on top of each other—each warranting detailed examination. It’s also quite dark and at times I found it uncomfortable to read, although there was no question in my mind as to finishing it.
I said in the beginning that I have mixed feelings about this book. The Land of Decoration is one of the most memorable reading experiences I’ve had this year, but not a terribly pleasant one. It’s a heavy read; well worth it, but heavy.
Bottom line: A thought-provoking, intelligent read. Similar in many ways to Room, but I personally liked this one better.
And if I had to say how I felt, I would say like a box that had been turned upside down. And the box was surprised by just how empty is was. -p. 14
I think people don’t believe things because they are afraid. Believing something means you could be wrong, and if you’re wrong you can get hurt. -p. 46
Evidence isn’t all there is to believing, and neither is being able to explain it. Even if people can’t explain something—like seeing a ghost or being healed—once they have experienced it, they believe it—though they might have spent their whole life saying it was nonsense. Which means that people who say something is impossible have probably never experienced it. -p. 48
And then I know that I am enormous and I am small, I go on forever and am gone in a moment, I am as young as a baby mouse and as old as the Himalayas. I am still and I am spinning. And if I am dust, then I am also the dust of stars. -p. 190
Have you read The Land of Decoration? What did you think?