The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen: Review
Ten year old loner Judith is being raised by her stern father, in a fundamental religious sect, although precisely which one is never specified. Her mother died shortly after giving birth to her and she thinks her father blames her. Her life revolves around nightly readings of The Bible, weekly prayer meetings, and going doorstepping with her father as he tries to warn unbelievers of the approaching End of the World.
Judith collects little bits of junk to make a miniature world in her bedroom – The Land of Decoration – the land of milk and honey that God promised the Israelites. She makes houses out of chocolate dip cartons and toffee barrels, tennis court nets from the orange netting around oranges, fire from a Lucozade cellophane wrapper, rivers from mirrors and zebra crossings from bar codes. She is being picked on at school for being different and when Neil Lewis, the class bully, threatens to flush her head down the toilet at school on Monday, she gets layers of cotton from her mother’s stash of fabrics and down from her duvet and covers everything in her land with ‘snow.’ The next morning when she wakes up to find it really has snowed overnight and school is shut, she believes she has performed an actual miracle. But with her new found power, things begin to spiral out of control until her whole world threatens to collapse.
The book is about faith and the loss of faith, miracles and sin. Set against a backdrop of factory strikes and poverty in the 80s, it is also about different kinds of persecution and herd mentality.
I loved the descriptions of the miniature Land of Decoration which are enchanting. A visit to McCleen’s website reveals that she still makes miniatures and is also an accomplished musician. It reminded me of how my friend and I would spend hours making a tiny museum in my bedroom in the gap between the edges of the carpet and the skirting board, with Tic Tac boxes for glass display cabinets, Quality Street foils shaped into precious goblets, cake pillars for Corinthian columns (and my Mum never being able to Hoover) or the fairy palaces I made with Jesus’ flannel leaves for beds and canopies of cherry blossom. It made me remember the time a pair of Jehovah’s witnesses (or maybe they were Mormons) turned up at our door and my Dad inviting them in for tea. Somehow we ended up going to see a stage performance of The Sound of Music and we couldn’t shake them off for weeks. It made me wonder how those people you see with megaphones on the side of the street preaching God’s Word carry on when everyone either scuttles by, crosses the street or is downright hostile to them, and if they ever question their faith when they get home.
In The Land of Decoration McCleen succeeds in that rare tightrope act of writing in the voice of a child without it being arch or knowing or using vocabulary a child wouldn’t know. It reminded me of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit in many ways. The best novels narrated by a child I have read recently are Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, the Astrid section of Ali Smith’s The Accidental and Sarah Winman’s When God Was a Rabbit. Whilst I mostly enjoyed Emma Donoghue’s Room – I did find the child’s voice in that grating after a while.
What novels narrated in the voice of a child have made an impression on you?
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