It begins wonderfully with a child invoking the story of creation of the world in seven days, recorded in the book of Genesis, as she creates her own model of the world.
I learned that her name was Judith. That she was ten years-old. That her mother was dead and that her father was bringing her up on his own. That he was a member of an Evangelical Christian sect that believed that the end of the world was nigh.
Judith was terribly isolated, and sadly I was not at all surprised to learn that she was horribly bullied at school. And so she created The Land of Decoration. A model of her world, ever detail carefully crafted from scraps and rubbish. Sweet wrappers, cotton wool, cereal boxes, tin foil, egg boxes, pipe cleaners … I loved that creativity. It brought light to a story with much darkness, but before long I found that the darkness would overtake that light.
Judith made a discovery; as she changed things in the Land of Decoration, things changed in the real world. She added in snow and a blanket of snow fell across the country, unforecasted and completely out of season. She added more and it snowed again. She took it away and the snow melted.
And then she heard the voice of God, telling her that she could work miracles, that she could change the world.
But could she? And was the voice really God?
Judith found that simple actions could have unexpected consequences – and that events could spiral. The story became darker and more sinister. Judith realised that she had lost control and struggled to regain it. And her father, poor man, crumbled.
It’s a strange story. A strange story that uses its setting – a small factory town in the seventies, in the winter of discontent – to wonderful effect.
Judith’s voice comes through loud and clear. She is naive, she accepts her father’s creed without question. And she is bright, but there is so much she doesn’t understand. But, of course, she doesn’t realise that.
She doesn’t understand her father’s grief over the loss of his wife, his doubts about his faith, his struggles at work and with the neighbours, and yet her clear-sightedness illuminates them.
Both father and daughter are wonderful creations: their interactions and their circumstances are so well drawn, and I was intrigued by the way their relationship developed as the story unfolded.
The narrative felt awkward at times, but short chapters make it easy to keep moving forward.
There was a lot – maybe too much – to think about.
The story of father and daughter – his crisis of faith, his crossing of picket lines at work – her problems with bullies, her developing relationship with a concerned teacher – could easily have stood up on their own.
And the story of the Land of Decoration, the voice of God, and the miracles – which was confusing in places – might have come into sharper focus if it had been set against a simpler story.
But Grace McCleen threw everything into the air together, and she created something quite unique.
I had so many questions, and I had to keep turning the pages.
The one thing though that I must question is the age of the children: often their behaviour, and their attributes, didn’t tie up with the ages. And maybe the world was just a little too small …
The ending was perfect. It was nicely dramatic, and it had just the right amount of ambiguity. Not all of my questions were answered, but sometimes it is right that there are no answers, that you have to make up your own mind.
And, though it is not without problems, it is lovely to be able to say that a debut novel is ambitious, intriguing and original.