Grace McCleen’s “The Land of Decoration” was a compelling read – not one that was to be consumed in one sitting, but instead one that forced me to slow down and contemplate and absorb. It’s also one that is difficult to review without giving away too much of the story.
McCleen was brought up in a Christian Fundamentalist sect herself, which lends an authenticity to the story and leaves you wondering how much was drawn from her own experiences. Hearing her speak at the Hay Festival last month, she confessed that the process of writing was physically challenging – it literally made her ill. The book resonates with such loneliness and sadness “If I were to die, who would remake me” that you wonder if the writing was a form of catharsis. That said, writing feels very precise and yet lyrical, with well-crafted prose that does reflect a sermon-like biblical influence.
The story belongs to 10-year-old Judith, who lives with her Christian Fundamentalist father. Her life is one of isolation – her father doesn’t allow her to participate in school assemblies (she explains to her substitute teacher that she has to stay “Separate from the World” because it is a “Den of Iniquity”), nor is she allowed TV or other outside influences. Instead, much of her free time is spent door-to-door preaching with her Father, Bible reading and prayer . Hers is a lonely life, and one in which she suffers daily abuse from a bully named Neil.
She escapes to her room, where she has created, in God-like fashion, a world in miniature from scraps of garbage saved and found. She names it “The Land of Decoration”, in reference to the land promised to the Israelites in the Book of Ezekiel. Her troubles at school ignored by the adults in her life, and inspired by a Sunday preaching of the tale of the mustard seed, she turns to her Land in an attempt to create a miracle for herself. As she begins to see herself as God’s Instrument, you may wonder if you are witnessing a miracle, or madness.
What happens next, you will have to discover on your own, as I’m not giving away any more of the plot…
This is a book that has a lot going on – there are many themes at work, one of the relationship of a child and the distant single parent, of the power of faith (or fanaticism), of good and evil, of miracles versus coincidence. It is complicated, painful at times, but a story that stayed with me. And one that, in the end, will leave you to decide what was real…or not.
I’m recommending “The Land of Decoration” by Grace McCleen.
*my server went down late Wednesday evening just as I was posting. Consider it a late edition….