The Land of Decoration – Grace McCleen

“Judith and her father don’t have much, but Judith sees the world with the clear Eyes of Faith, and where others might see rubbish, Judith sees possibility. Bullied at school, she finds solace in making a model of the Promised Land — little people made from pipe cleaners, a sliver of moon, luminous stars and a mirror sea — a world of wonder that Judith calls The Land of Decoration. Perhaps, she thinks, if she makes it snow indoors (using shaving foam and cotton wool and cellophane) there will be no school on Monday…Sure enough, when Judith opens her curtains the next day, the world beyond her window has turned white. She has performed her first miracle. And that’s when her troubles begin. With its intensely taut storytelling and gorgeous prose, The Land of Decoration is a heartbreaking story of good and evil, belief and doubt. Its author, Grace McCleen, is a blazing new talent in contemporary literature.”

When I read the description for this book, it sounded right up my street. A relatable heroine and a little bit of magic, all wrapped up in a brilliantly original concept. Clara Farmer, the publishing director at Chatto & Windus, included a glowing recommendation letter at the beginning, which set the book up for me even more. I expected to love The Land of Decoration, so I was surprised and a little disappointed when I didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate it, but I thought I would fall hard for this book. The problem lay in the subject matter. It’s easy to relate to a young girl’s problems, and Judith’s experiences of bullying, single parenting and awkward relationship with her father especially rang true with me. What overshadowed these messages was the religious theme running parallel to this. Judith and her father are both devout Christians. They spend evenings attending Church meetings and at weekends knocking on doors and preaching their religious messages. Though I don’t have a problem with religious novels, I don’t practise a religion myself, so it was difficult for me to relate to this.

Apart from that, it’s brilliant. Grace’s ability to realistically narrate the story from a little girl’s point of view is admirable, and as the Sunday Times promises, it is ‘skilfully and arrestingly written’. We start the story with Judith being bullied at school. Back at home, things aren’t much better – the relationship between her and her recently widowed father is painfully stilted, and the only refuge she has is in her Land of Decoration, a world of people made from pipe cleaners and bits of material. When she makes it snow, using cotton wool and shaving foam, in the hope that life will imitate art and allow her to stay home from school on Monday, she is flabbergasted that it actually happens. But this gift turns into a curse as she begins to manipulate her life further, accompanied by an unseen voice – what she perceives to be God – and gets a little more than she bargains for. Grace could have ended the novel in a desperately bleak manner, but instead leaves Judith with the promise that things are going to get better. The ending – a charming recipe for How To Make a Hot Air Balloon – is wonderfully whimsical and fits it with the story perfectly.

This tale is beautiful; it’s the pitch-perfect mix of melancholy and sweetness, and I admire both Grace McCleen’s imagination and writing skills. It just unfortunately wasn’t true love.

Many thanks to Random House for the review copy.

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