The Land of Decorationby Grace McCleen
A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
Winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize
Judith and her father don't have muchtheir house is full of dusty relics, reminders of the mother she's never known. But Judith sees the world with the clear Eyes of Faith, and where others might see rubbish, Judith sees possibility. Bullied at school,/b>/b>/i>
A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
Winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize
Judith and her father don't have muchtheir house is full of dusty relics, reminders of the mother she's never known. 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 Landlittle people made from pipe cleaners, a sliver of moon, luminous stars, and a mirror seaa world of wonder that Judith calls the Land of Decoration. Perhaps, she thinks, if she makes it snow indoors (using shaving cream and cotton balls and Scotch tape) 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 breathtaking story of good and evil, belief and doubt. Grace McCleen is a blazing new talent in contemporary literature.
“Gripping…philosophically sophisticated…McCleen never tips her hat. The writing is born of a genuine inquiry into the nature of religious belief, especially as it relates to one's psychological development…The Land of Decoration puts a child at the crux of this interpretive dillema, and our hearts go out to her.” The New York Times Book Review
“[A] mind-bending, soul-stretching, gloriously realized debut…While end-of-time stories are faddish, UK writer Grace McCleen's novel, The Land of Decoration, is one to heed. The first sentence sets the tone for this rapturous, daringly imaginative tale of love, loss, and salvation…” Elle magazine
“McCleen skillfully keeps us in a state of suspense; we root for Judith even while we are aghast at her conclusions and actions… [A]s the advice and instruction Judith receives become increasingly dangerous, the book becomes something even the Bible can't always be: a page turner.” Minneapolis Star Tribune
“This extraordinary tale of one little girl's End Times grabbed me by the throat. The Land of Decoration is part social observation and part crazy mysticism, held together by a brutally real story of parent-child love.” Emma Donoghue, author of Room
“Loveable, unique and thrillingly uncategorisable… A story about a small person's small antithesis of a small town full of small-minded people, this is a big-hearted novel.” Chris Cleave, Financial Times
“Gripping, beautiful… [M]akes you gasp with delight…In many ways it's suspense--is Judith going to get hurt?--that keeps you tearing through the pages (be prepared for the complete and total devastation of your social life; once you pick up this novel, you will not be able to do anything until you finish)... This isn't a child like the other children in books--say, the unbelievably smart ones who can lecture on astronomy and rare stamps. This is a regular old child, a loving, confused, tender-hearted little person who is trying, like all of us, to make some sense of out of this life.” Oprah.com pick for "Book of the Week"
“The novel's best moments offer a profound sense of the existential crisis that any believer eventually faces… McCleen also has a good ear for the blessings of comedy -- the little moments of absurdity that children experience as they try to make sense of religion.” Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“Grace McCleen's writing is deep, fantastical and powerful, and she really lets us into the heart of this tender, gentle little girl…A wonderful gen of a debut novel.” The Independent (UK)
“A tremendously affecting novel, skillfully and arrestingly written, and one that packs a big emotional punch.” The Sunday Times (UK)
“British musician McCleen's debut explores the complexities of love between a widowed father and his daughter…McCleen adroitly combines cinematic momentum with intuitive description in this novel about the consequences of faith and what happens when we believe that we have the power to effectuate change.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“So memorable…Surprising, affecting, thoughtful and complex, McCleen's novel grows in power the more time you spend with it.” The Guardian (UK)
“Extraordinary…like Emma Donoghue (whose "Room" was shortlisted for last year's Booker Prize) McCleen has created a voice which rings true and resonates deep. Bursting with tension and tenderness, this novel is a small miracle in itself.” Daily Mail (UK)
“[A] stunning debut.…At its core, it's about the biggest issues a person can encounter--how to confront the unknown, how to negotiate faith and how to be a decent and loving human being. The fact that Grace McCleen is able to address these matters with such subtlety and delicacy is no small miracle itself.” Bookpage
“Which of us, when we were small, didn't fervently wish for -- and frankly believe in -- divine intervention? [The Land of Decoration] paints an affecting and often unsettling portrait of pure faith. B+” Entertainment Weekly
“Debut author McCleen creates a believable, compelling voice for the youthful narrator, and her portrait of a bereaved father is equally affecting…(a) haunting debut.” Kirkus
“[Grace McCleen] writes with a kind of plaintive lyricism; you ache for Judith, but keep reading, because there's something haunting and addictive about the rhythm of the sentences.” The Seattle Times
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The Land of Decoration
By Grace McCleen
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2012 Grace McCleen
All rights reserved.
The Empty Room
In the beginning there was an empty room, a little bit of space, a little bit of light, a little bit of time.
I said: "I am going to make fields," and I made them from place mats, carpet, brown corduroy, and felt. Then I made rivers from crêpe paper, plastic wrap, and shiny tinfoil, and mountains from papier mâché and bark. And I looked at the fields and I looked at the rivers and I looked at the mountains and I saw they were good.
I said: "Now for some light," and I made a sun from a wire metal cage strung with beads that hung down from above, I made a sliver of moon and luminous stars, and at the edge of the world I made a sea from a mirror, reflecting the sky and the boats and the birds and the land (where it touched). And I looked at the sun and I looked at the moon and I looked at the sea and I saw they were good.
I said: "What about homes?" And I made one from a ball of dry grass and one from a hollow tree stump and one from a barrel that toffees came in and I gave it a fishing line and sail and made space for a blanket and toothbrush and cup, and a stove, and put a gull high on the mast (which was really a broom handle) and launched it out on the sea (which was really a mirror).
I made houses from chocolate-dip-cookie cartons: the plastic scoop where the chocolate was, that was the bedroom, and the round room below, where the cookies had been, that was the living room. I made houses from a matchbox and a bird's nest and a pea pod and a shell. And I looked at the houses and saw they were good.
I said: "Now we need animals," and I made paper birds and wool rabbits and felt cats and dogs. I made furry bears, striped leopards, and fire-breathing, scale-crusted dragons. I made glittering fish and cockleshell crabs and birds on very thin wires.
Last I said: "We need people," and I modeled faces and hands, lips, teeth, and tongues. I dressed them and wigged them and breathed into their lungs.
And I looked at the people and I looked at the animals and I looked at the land. And I saw they were good.
The Ground from the Air
If you look at the earth from the ground, it seems very big. Stand in a playground and bend down and put your face to the ground as if you were looking for something small, and it seems bigger still. There are miles of concrete going outward and miles of sky going upward and miles of nothing going nowhere in between. Boys playing football are giants, the ball is a planet, girls skipping are trees uprooting themselves, and with each turn of the rope the ground trembles. But if you look down from the sky, the boys and the girls and the ball and the rope seem smaller than flies.
I watch the boys and girls. I know their names but I don't speak to them. When they notice me, I look away. I pick up a candy wrapper next to my shoe. I will make it into flowers or a rainbow or maybe a crown. I put the wrapper inside a bag and walk on.
Through the concrete, weeds are growing. At the corners of buildings they are pushing through, whittling their way to the light. I wiggle some loose and settle them with soil in a tiny tin cup that held chocolate and a tube that held sweets. They will be planted again and then they will be oaks and pampas and beeches and palms. I pick up a shoelace lying in a puddle. "This will be a hose," I say. "Or a stream. Or a python. Or maybe a creeper." And I am happy because in just a few hours I will be back in my room making things.
Then suddenly I am falling; the ground rushes up to meet me, and gravel is biting my knees. A boy is standing over me. He is tall. He has a thick neck. He has blue eyes and freckles and white skin and a nose like a pig. He has yellow hair and pale lashes and a cowlick. Though I don't think anyone would want to lick him, not even cows, who lick their own noses. Two boys are with him. One takes the bag I am holding. He tips it up and wrappers and laces and can tops blow away.
The yellow-haired boy pulls me up. He says: "What shall we do with her?"
"Hang her on the railings."
"Pull down her pants."
But the boy with yellow hair smiles. He says: "Have you ever seen the inside of a toilet, freak?"
A bell rings and, all across the playground, groups of children run to line up at the double doors. The yellow-haired boy says: "Shit." To me he says: "Wait till Monday," pushes me backward, and runs off with the others.
When they are a little way off he turns round. He has a sleepy look in his eyes, as if he is dreaming and enjoying the dream. He draws his finger across his throat, then takes off laughing.
I close my eyes and lean against the dustbins. When I open my eyes I pick the gravel out of my knees and spit on them. I hold them hard at the edges to make them stop stinging. Then I begin walking back to the school building. I am sad because I will not be able to make flowers or a stream or an oak tree after all. But what is worse is that, on Monday, Neil Lewis will put my head down the toilet, and if I die who will make me again?
The bell has stopped ringing now and the playground is empty. The sky is lowering. It looks like rain. Then from nowhere a gust of wind rises. It whips my hair and balloons my coat and carries me forward. And tumbling and flapping and fluttering around me go wrappers and papers and laces and tops.
Holding My Breath
My name is Judith McPherson. I am ten years old. On Monday a miracle happened. That is what I'm going to call it. And I did it all. It was because of what Neil Lewis said about putting my head down the toilet. It was because I was frightened. But it was also because I had faith.
It all began on Friday night. Father and I were eating lamb and bitter greens in the kitchen. Lamb and bitter greens are Necessary Things. Our lives are full of Necessary Things because we are living in the Last Days, but Necessary Things are often difficult, like preaching. Preaching is necessary because Armageddon is near, but most people don't want to be preached to and sometimes they shout at us.
Lamb represents the firstborns God killed in Egypt and Christ, who died for mankind. Bitter greens reminded the Israelites of the bitterness of slavery and how good it was to be in the Promised Land. Father says they are full of iron. But I like to think of lambs in a field, not on my plate, and when I try to swallow bitter greens, my throat closes up. I was having more trouble eating than usual that Friday night on account of what Neil Lewis said. After a while I gave up and put down my fork. I said: "What's dying like?"
Father had his overalls on from the factory. The kitchen light made hollows around his eyes. He said: "What?"
"What's dying like?"
"What sort of question is that?"
"I just wondered."
His face was dark. "Eat up."
I loaded my fork with bitter greens and closed my eyes. I would have held my nose but Father would have seen. I counted, then swallowed. After a while I said: "How long could someone survive if their head was held underwater?"
"How long could someone survive underwater?" I said. "I mean, I expect they'd last longer if they were used to it. At least until someone found them. But if it was their first time. If the person holding them down wanted them to die—which they would—I mean, if their head was held down."
Father said: "What are you talking about?"
I looked down. "How long could someone survive underwater?"
He said: "I have no idea!"
I swallowed the rest of the bitter greens without chewing; then Father took away the plates and got the Bibles out.
We read the Bible every day and then we ponder what we have read. Reading the Bible and pondering are also Necessary Things. Pondering is necessary because it is the only way we can find out what we think about God. But God's ways are unsearchable. This means you could ponder forever and still not know what to think. When I try to ponder, my mind slips to other things, like how I make a swimming pool and steps from an embroidery loop for the model world in my room or how many pear drops I can buy with my pocket money or how much more pondering there is still left to do. But afterward we always talk about what we have pondered, so there's no way you can pretend you have been pondering when you haven't.
It was getting dark outside the window. I could hear boys riding their bikes in the back lane. They were going up a ramp, and every time they came down it the board clanked. I looked at Father. I could tell by the way his eyebrows jutted that I must pay attention. I could tell by the way his glasses glittered that he must not be interrupted. I looked down, took a deep breath, and held it.
"In the ninth year, in the tenth month, on the tenth day, the voice of the Lord came to me: 'Son of man, remember this date, this very day, because the king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem.' ..."
At twenty-five seconds the room began to pulse and my breath escaped in little puffs. I waited a minute, then took another.
A dog barked. A dustbin lid clattered. Seconds dripped from the clock on the mantelpiece. At twenty-five seconds the room began to pulse again and I had to let my breath out again. I must have done it quite suddenly, because Father looked up and said: "Are you all right?"
I opened my eyes wide and nodded.
"Are you following?"
I nodded again and opened my eyes even wider. He looked at me from under his eyebrows, then began to read again.
"'Now your impurity is badness. Because I tried to save you but you would not be saved, and you will not be saved again until my wrath against you has subsided. I the Lord have spoken.'"
I waited two whole minutes, then I took another breath.
I held it. And held it.
I said: "I am going to do this. I am not going to drown."
I hung on to the arms of the chair. I pushed my feet into the floor. I pressed my bottom to the seat. I got to twenty-four seconds when Father said: "What are you doing?"
"Pondering!" I said, and my breath came out in a rush.
A vein in Father's temple flickered. "You're very red."
"It's hard work," I said.
"This isn't a game."
"Are you following?"
Father blew a little air out of his nose, then began to read again.
I waited three whole minutes. Then I took another breath.
I filled each bit of my body with air: my stomach, my lungs, my arms, and my legs. My chest hurt. My head pounded. My legs jumped up and down.
I didn't notice that Father had stopped reading. I didn't see him looking at me till he said: "What's going on?"
"I don't feel well."
He put down his Bible. "Let's get something straight. I am not reading this for your entertainment. I am not reading this for the benefit of my health. I'm reading this because it will save your life. So, sit up, stop fidgeting, and start paying attention!"
"OK," I said.
He waited a minute, then began to read again. "'The time has come. I will not hold back; I will not have compassion, nor will I relent. You will be judged according to your actions,' declares the Sovereign Lord."
I tried to follow, but all I could think about was the toilet bowl, all I could hear was the cistern flushing, all I could feel were hands pushing me down.
"Then the people asked me, 'Tell us, what do these things have to do with us?' And I said to them, 'The voice of the Lord came to me, saying: "Say to the house of Israel, Judith!"'"
Father read it just like that, without stopping and without looking up.
"What?" My heart snagged on my cardigan.
"Carry on reading please."
I looked, but the page teemed with ants. I turned and my face got hot. I turned back and my face got hotter.
Father closed his Bible. He said: "Go to your room."
"I can do it!" I said.
"No, you obviously have better things to do."
"I was listening!"
Father said: "Judith."
I stood up.
My head felt very hot, as if there were too many things going on in it. It was jumbled too, as if someone had shaken it up. I went to the door. I put my hand on the handle and I said: "It's not fair."
Father looked up. "What was that?"
His eyes glittered. "It better be."
What Is Dying Like?
There is a world in my room. It is made from things no one else wanted and it is made with things that were my mother's, that she left to me, and it has taken most of my life to make.
The world stretches from the second floorboard by the door to the radiator underneath the window. There are mountains by the wall, where the room is darkest, and great cliffs and caves. There are rivers running down from the mountains to hills and pastures, and here is where there are the first houses. Then there is the valley and the fields and the town, and after the town there are some more farms and then there is the beach and the beach road and a forest of pine trees and a bay and a pier, and finally, right by the radiator under the window, there is the sea, with a few rocks and a lighthouse and some boats and sea creatures. Strung from the ceiling on short strings there are planets and stars, from longer strings there is the sun and the moon, and from the longest strings of all, clouds, airplanes, and the light shade is a paper hot-air balloon.
The world is called the Land of Decoration. In the Book of Ezekiel it says God swore to bring the Israelites out of captivity to a wonderful country. It was flowing with milk and honey. It lacked nothing, it was a miracle, a paradise. It was so different from everything around it that it stood out like a jewel and was called "the decoration of all the lands." When I close the door of my room, the walls fold back and there are planets and rainbows and suns. The floor rolls up and there are fields and roads at my feet and hundreds of small people. If I stretch out my hand I can touch the top of a mountain, if I blow I can ripple the sea. I lift my head and look right into the sun. I feel happy when I go into my room. But that Friday night, I didn't notice any of those things.
I closed the door and leaned against it. I wondered if I should go back down and tell Father why I had been holding my breath. But if I did he would only say: "Have you told the teacher?" and I would say: "Yes," and Mr. Davies had said: "No one is going to put anyone's head down the toilet," and Father would say: "Well, then." But I knew that Neil would just the same. And I wondered why Father never believed me.
I sat down on the floor. A wood louse was crawling out from underneath my knees, flicking its antennae and strumming its feet. It looked like a tiny armadillo. I watched it climb the sand dunes in the Land of Decoration and wondered if it would ever find its way out again. We did an experiment with wood lice in school. We built a plasticine maze and counted the number of times they turned left or right. They nearly always turned left. This is because they cannot think for themselves. I wondered if this meant the wood louse would come out eventually or would just keep going round in circles until it died in a little crusty ball.
Excerpted from The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen. Copyright © 2012 Grace McCleen. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Grace McCleen studied English Literature at Oxford University and The University of York before becoming a full-time writer and musician. She lives in London. The Land of Decoration is her first novel.
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Every year there seems to be a book that stays with me long after I've turned the last page. And when someone asks me for a good book recommendation, it's the first one that comes to mind. The Land of Decoration - a debut novel by Grace McCleen is one of those books. Ten year old Judith McPherson lives in England with her father, her mother having passed away. She attends school, but is bullied and isolated, primarily because of the religious beliefs that she and her father follow. And sometimes Judith escapes into her own little world - one she has created in her room from rubbish. "There is a world in my room. It is made from things no one else wanted and it is made with things that were my mother's, that she left to me, and it has taken most of my life to make." She calls this world The Land of Decoration. She has taken this name from the book of Ezekiel - the land of milk and honey, a paradise for the faithful in the afterlife - The Promised Land. For Judith, it is where she will see her mother again. When Judith transforms her Land of Decoration into a snow covered blizzard and it happens in reality, she believes she is responsible. " Miracles happen because someone made them and because someone, somewhere, had faith." And she's doubly sure she's responsible as God told her she was. The bullying amplifies, as does the unrest at the factory Judith's father works at. And so does Judith's belief that she has the power to create miracles and change things. And God's voice is getting louder. I was so mesmerized by this book. I couldn't read it straight through, but had to put it down and come back later as my emotions were in a turmoil. Judith's voice was heartbreaking in so many ways. McCleen has created a character in Judith that just grabbed me and wouldn't let go. I found myself stopping to ponder many of her views. I wanted so badly to help her as she faced so much more than a ten year old should. McCleen's depictions of the other main players are just as well done. Judith's father is another poignant portrayal that was difficult to accept and read at times. McCleen's books explores so many themes - love, hate, tolerance, persecution, belief, faith and more, but ultimately is about the love between a parent and child. I wonder how much of Judith's story is Grace's story. She was raised in a fundamentalist religious environment and has a strong interest in miniatures as well. I think readers are either going to love or hate McCleen's book, much like Emma Donoghue's Room. This reader loved it. (so did Emma Donoghue)
Judith McPherson is the ten-year-old voice of the story. Clever, sweet-intentioned most of the time, albeit confused and displaying some questionable behavior, she believes her father doesn’t love her. Judith has created a secret miniature world in her bedroom, made from the discarded scraps of everyday life. A quiet girl without friends her own age, she lives through the landscape and citizens of her handmade world. Judith’s life is made miserable and difficult by a school bully by the name of Neil Lewis. Her only solace in life is found in her relationship with God. Although the religion is never named in the book, it seems evident to me that the fictional religion is based on that of Jehovah’s Witnesses or something very similar. Making them Witnesses-like is an effective way to reinforce that Judith is in her own world, as Witnesses believe that they are “no part of this world” and keep themselves apart from the rest of society in their personal lives. This helped to strengthen the image of Judith as being a part of her handmade “Land of Decoration” in her bedroom more so than the world outside her door. Throughout the story, you are never quite sure whether Judith is delusional, or whether her life is full of coincidence. What is real, and what is in her head? But you continually want to take her in your arms and offer her solace. There is some vulgarity and crudity, but it is by no means gratuitous. It is kind of hard to have low-life bullies without it. My final word: I was in love with this book and little Judith McPherson before I finished page 1! As the story went on, I found that there were moments that inspired an almost visceral response. You find yourself thinking "no, no, no!" You find yourself pulling for this confused little girl at odds with herself and the world, trying to find balance with her otherwise rocky existence. Probably about three-quarters of the way through my love affair faded slightly, but I found it picked up again before long, and in the end I loved this story. I loved Judith.
Grief tends to be sad that is why it isn't all smiles and assurances that everything will be alright. It is a process of coming to terms, of healing.
Is it really the voice from God each time while Judith talking with? I am so confusing toward the end of the story. Then I realize this is not a book that shows you how to grow your faith or what you should do as a Christina in this fast changing world,but a book takes you to think deeply. The story is very touching, I was being very emotional while reading the book. I don't know what to say now because i have complicated feeling inside and racing thoughts after I read this book. It is a little depressing. The ending is a little weird.
Odd book...hated the ending.