Grace McCleen’s debut novel arrives with a glowing endorsement from Emma Donoghue, author of Room, splashed across its cover. The Land of Decoration shares a crucial element with Room: a young person’s narration – in this case, 10-year-old Judith.
As the New York Times review points out, there is some question here about whether Judith is capable of miracles or is having delusions. I love this aside by reviewer Janet Maslin:
(Note to fans of the Library of Congress’s classification system: Cheating won’t help you. The Library has hedged its bets by classifying this book as both “Religious fiction” and “Psychological fiction.” The novel falls into the categories “Girls,” “Fathers and daughters,” “Good and evil” and “Miracles” too. Somehow a book featuring precise instructions on how to make people out of clay, beads and pipe cleaners has not been cataloged under “Handicrafts” as well.)
Adult/High School–While 10-year-old Judith McPherson and her widower father John try fervently to hold to their apocalyptic religious beliefs, they are both mercilessly bullied: John by local tough Doug Lewis for being a scab at the town factory, and Judith by Doug’s son Neil. When a pair of freak snow storms and a strict substitute teacher begin to foil Neil’s pranks at school, Judith begins to believe that she has caused these miracles and is herself an Instrument of God. But these miracles only push Neil to escalate his violent bullying after school, and soon John and Judith each must face severe crises of faith. McCleen’s exquisite debut recalls at various times such disparate works as Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (Farrar, 2004), Jo Walton’s Among Others (Tor, 2011), and (strangely) Roald Dahl’s Matilda (Viking, 1998), mining those novels’ themes of the paradoxical relationship between power and powerlessness; the richly interconnected worlds of faith and imagination; and the tragic delicacy of the relationships between single parents and their children. These are enormous themes for a first-time novelist, but in McCleen’s deft hands they dovetail naturally into one another, at the same time that they flow effortlessly from the intricately wrought characters of Judith and John. They are also themes that are at the very heart of what it means to grow up, and though some teens uncomfortable with the overt religiosity of this novel may require a push, they will be greatly rewarded by a work that speaks deeply to the rich ambiguity of young adulthood.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA