The Land of Decoration, Grace McCleen

Verdict: Odd and good. More of both than I was expecting.

Okay okay. I admit that I should have read The Land of Decoration (Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) a while ago, when Mumsy told me to. It’s really quite good. I resisted it because it’s an odd little book. It’s about a little girl called Judith growing up in an unknown period in British history. Richard Dawkins exists but computers don’t seem to, and many of the adult characters work in a factory. Judith and her father are members of a church of Brothers that takes them out to witness to the townspeople and isolates Judith tremendously at her school. Her escape from all this is a world she has built in her room, which she calls The Land of Decoration. One day, faced with the prospect of being possibly drowned by a bully at her school, she sprinkles snow all over The Land of Decoration, and the next morning snow appears, and school is canceled. Matters proceed from there.

I expected, I think, that The Land of Decoration would be cutesy. In some ways it is — Judith is at times a little too ingenuous, even given her extreme isolation, and there’s not quite enough normalcy to give context to her weirdness. But the book is also dark. Judith hears a voice that she thinks is God, telling her that she is chosen and special, but she doesn’t find it very helpful. E.g.:

“Listen, young lady: Your power depends on you doing exactly what I tell you. That’s the deal. You won’t get far without Me.”

“I’m sorry!” I said. “I’ll try to be more careful. But I don’t understand: You weren’t like this when I talked to Father or Uncle Stan.”

“That was different,” said God. “I didn’t foresee any problems with them.”

“Father didn’t believe me at all!”

“Precisely,” said God. “I mean — more fool him.” He coughed.

While she deals with the mystical implications of her newfound powers, Judith’s father is facing a strike at the factory where he works. He does not go on strike, and the sons of those who have retaliate against him and against Judith. The police cannot, or will not, help protect them, and Judith’s father feels angry and powerless.

The Land of Decoration owes its oomf to the parallel sufferings of Judith and her father. They are both suffering for their fidelity to what they believe is right, and they both feel helpless to protect themselves from the anger of people who believe they are wrong. More painfully, they are both in the midst of a crisis of faith. But they have no ability to relate to each other. Their wrenching separateness, and my worry about whether it would ever end, was for me the central tension of the book.

If, as I said, a little ingenuous at times, Judith is generally a wonderful narrator. She and her father read the Bible every day and ponder its message, and her own ponderings, combined with things she has been told by various adults, are often wonderful (but reasonably ten-year-old-ish) reflections on the ways of the world and her own existence and the existence of God. They make this book, which on its face sounds a little generic (precocious child narrating events she doesn’t understand), kind of sui generis.

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  • I was guessing the 80’s? I figured it was about the time of McCleen’s childhood. Because I think she was herself the child of a rather cultish religious family.

    I’ve been looking at Google images of the biblical Judith with the severed head of Holofernes. Pretty rough stuff! Maybe not the image people have of their adorable baby girls?

    • Gin Jenny

      Oh, was she? Did you read an interview with her? I am curious to know more!

  • I had decided against reading this book as I thought it would be cutesy too, so it’s good to see there are some darker elements too, to balance it out. I think I will give it a go after all.

    • Gin Jenny

      It’s truly barely cutesy at all. I would recommend it — let me know what you think!

  • It sounds quite biblical but without being preachy at all, if that quote is anything to go by. Not so sure about the target age for it though, on one hand it sounds YA, on the other too cute for it.

    • Gin Jenny

      Oh no, it’s definitely an adult novel. I shouldn’t have said “cute” — it honestly isn’t. The only thing about it that suggests cutesiness of any kind is that it has a very young and very innocent narrator. It’s quite a creepy book in some ways.

  • It’s definitely not YA. It’s not cute, either. Kind of bleak, but funny and interesting too.

  • Hmm.. I wanted to read this book based purely on the title and one of the cover versions I really liked. You have made me think.. I am less enthousiastic perhaps? But I’d still like to give it a try? It sounds as if you weren’t wholeheartedly convinced and yet it was less cutesy (which I read here as meaning disappointing?) than you expected, I gather from your review? [Sorry about all those questionmarks]

    • Gin Jenny

      I think you would like it. Can’t swear to it, but I think that you would.

  • This reminds me of that sadness of the lemon cake novel, or whatever it was. It seems like magic realism-lite tends at the moment towards stories of children dealing with their suffering in ways that tap the power of the imagination. I’d like to see magic realism taking on the adults again. Adults can be magic realists too! 🙂

  • Huh. I had not heard of this one before, but it sounds interesting…and books recommended by one’s reading mother (or the reading mothers of others) are often very good. So I’ll look for it!