There seems to be a surplus of juvenile narrators these days. They, and their problems, are ubiquitous. I’m beginning to think if you’ve read the story of one adolescent with a troubled home life, you’ve read them all. And the 10-year old heroine of The Land of Decoration is no exception. A strange mixture of wide-eyed credulity and religious fanaticism – Judith’s upbringing has been unconventional. Her mother died when she was born. She and her emotionally distant father are members of an end of days church. And her preoccupation with the coming Apocalypse doesn’t make her any friends in school. Judith is the favorite target of one particularly vicious bully, a boy named Neil. A boy so violent and cruel he is almost a caricature. She escapes from this drab and unhappy existence into the miniature world she’s built out of found scraps and trash called The Land of Decoration.
One evening, desperate to avoid Neil at school, she makes it snow in the Land of Decoration. The next morning she looks outside and sees the world covered in snow. She hears a mysterious voice telling her that she can perform miracles. Everything suddenly changes.
I couldn’t help comparing The Land of Decoration to Sheri Reynold’s The Rapture of Canaan or the short-lived television series Joan of Arcadia – mainly because of the shared religious subject matter. But whereas I remember a tragic poignancy to Reynold’s heroine and the real life difficulties faced by Joan, McCleen’s characters (and story) lacks that kind of complexity. Judith is all conviction, with no hesitation in her beliefs. She has no conflict in her personality (though there is a hint at possible mental illness – something that isn’t pursued). I couldn’t buy into it. There is something too perfect, too unquestioning, too accepting about this young girl. Round out the cast with a father who is as cold as granite, a bully who is the embodiment of evil, and a motley bunch of likeable misfits… it’s almost a script for a Hallmark Channel movie. In truth the only character I found intriguing was the disembodied (and vaguely sinister) voice of God which only Judith can hear.
There are some hints of interesting writing in The Land of Decoration… frustrating glimpses of the book I’d hoped to read. I really enjoyed the passages about Judith’s handmade world and the how-to chapters explaining how parts of it were built. And that sinister God – who triggered all sorts of warning alarms. McCleen has created a straight forward narrative out of a plot that should have been anything but straightforward. Sadly, the unique elements she introduces become no more than props. She glosses over them to focus her efforts on the conventional and ordinary.
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, New York (2012).
ISBN: 978 0 8050 9494 7