We’re a little late to the Land of Decoration party (perhaps we’re not amongst the Saved? We’re all not the most devout at Bookmunch Inc.); it’s out in paperback now, after a pretty triumphant hardback innings. It was picked by the Sunday Times as one of the four most promising débuts of 2012; it was one of that year’s Waterstones 11, and was the winner of the Desmond Elliot Prize; the paperback is one of Richard and Judy’s picks for 2013. It’s about a ten year-old girl called Judith McPherson who’s been brought up a fundamentalist Christian in a small factory town, and who comes to believe that she can perform miracles. In McCleen’s own words, it’s about ‘godhood, creation, faith, imagination, matter and energy.’ And we’re impressed.
Judith McPherson has created a make-believe world, the Land of Decoration, in her bedroom. It’s based on Biblical stories of the world that will come after Armageddon and named for a phrase in the Book of Ezekiel, and she’s made it out of rubbish. Though she’s happy in her model world at home, at school Judith’s being persecuted by Neil Lewis, a bully who picks on her because of her religious beliefs. But when one of Judith’s wishes comes true, and God then starts to speak to her, she realises that anything she makes happen in the Land of Decoration will also happen in reality: she can work miracles. So far, so convenient. She’s an Instrument of God, and she has Power. But things aren’t quite that easy: the bullies don’t quit, Judith’s widowed factory-worker father, John, is under attack for breaking a strike, and he can’t communicate with his daughter. Judith’s troubles escalate, and her God becomes increasingly demanding. Can she use the Land of Decoration to fix what’s gone wrong, or is it too late?
I won’t toss in any spoilers, because one of the strengths of McCleen’s novel is the way she creates an increasingly awful sense of doom and anticipation: Judith’s worry and panic are claustrophobic and contagious, and this doesn’t let up at all as the plot steamrollers on. A child narrator is a tricky beast, and I as, at first, wary—pulling off a non-irritating, yet convincing, naivety as well as sneaking in enough giveaway fodder that adult readers will be able to glimpse the possible truths behind Judith’s odd world-view isn’t easy. Emma Donoghue’s celebrated Room didn’t manage it (sue me if you disagree)—her kid’s POV was subject to slips that from time to time punctured the illusion enough to make the narration seem disingenuous—but McCleen’s (admittedly older) narrator is both consistent and convincing throughout. Her cloistered upbringing (spare time is spent Pondering the Bible and going door to door to spread the Word) explains her naivety, which is nicely contrasted with the more realistic vulgarity of her contemporaries; and that cusp-of-adolescence zone acts as a nice interstitial space for violence and innocence to clash horns. The other hook is, of course, the idiosyncrasies of the McPhersons’ belief system and the effect that this has on Judith’s psyche. McCleen skates a knife-edge between revelation and fantasy: it’s never entirely clear if Judith’s miracles are the product of her own stressed imagination, or if she’s really endowed with her God’s power. I think this ambiguity is not only one of the novel’s obvious selling-points (what a marketing hook!), but also one of its huge successes: whether Judith is chosen or delusional is less relevant than whether she and her father can learn to communicate with one another. While the book is about faith and creation, this isn’t understood in a narrow, Genesis way—or, not entirely, anyway—it’s also about faith in love and community and one’s own strength. Judith’s imagination is the driving force in the book: even if she’s not imaging God’s strident come-backs, her imagination pushes her into a place where she’s forced to act out of character; to confront her terrors and try and wrest control from a hostile world. Likewise, because of the book’s ontological ambiguities, it casts judgement on neither believers nor non-believers; Judith’s real problem is a private, familial one, and its resolution is equally private, though it’s precipitated by events from both her secular and ecclesiastical worlds. McCleen’s own upbringing in a hardcore Christian environment has been one of the media headlines where this novel’s concerned, but that’s neither here nor there: The Land of Decoration is a nuanced exploration of a small town, and a small family, in crisis.
That’s not to say it’s without flaws, but its flaws are certainly minor. There’s an implication that the novel as text is equatable with Judith’s journal, but the sophistication of the narration is, I think, inconsistent with what we know of Judith’s narrative skills (if not her imaginative skills), as seen in her school assignments. The church members veer, a little, towards grotesques; but a ten year-old’s assessment of her adult companions isn’t going to be markedly realistic. The other children in Judith’s class (aside from Neil, who’s acutely drawn) aren’t shown in any depth, which, given the sharp rendering of the adults, felt a little sketchy. But these aren’t worth nitpicking about: this is a massively readable novel; a tender portrait of fear and love and loss and longing, and anticipation and hope. McCleen layers her plot carefully and effectively as the town’s political upheaval and Judith’s psychological strain escalate side by side.
Any Cop?: A simple, but very compelling read: definite recommendation.