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The Land of Decoration

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Overview

A mesmerizing debut about a young girl whose steadfast belief and imagination bring everything she once held dear into treacherous balance

In Grace McCleen's harrowing, powerful debut, she introduces an unforgettable heroine in ten-year-old Judith McPherson, a young believer who sees the world with the clear Eyes of Faith. Persecuted at school for her beliefs and struggling with her distant, devout father at home, young Judith finds solace and connection in a model in miniature ...

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The Land of Decoration: A Novel

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Overview

A mesmerizing debut about a young girl whose steadfast belief and imagination bring everything she once held dear into treacherous balance

In Grace McCleen's harrowing, powerful debut, she introduces an unforgettable heroine in ten-year-old Judith McPherson, a young believer who sees the world with the clear Eyes of Faith. Persecuted at school for her beliefs and struggling with her distant, devout father at home, young Judith finds solace and connection in a model in miniature of the Promised Land that she has constructed in her room from collected discarded scraps—the Land of Decoration. Where others might see rubbish, Judith sees possibility and divinity in even the strangest traces left behind. As ominous forces disrupt the peace in her and Father's modest lives—a strike threatens her father's factory job, and the taunting at school slips into dangerous territory—Judith makes a miracle in the Land of Decoration that solidifies her blossoming convictions. She is God's chosen instrument. But the heady consequences of her newfound power are difficult to control and may threaten the very foundations of her world.

With its intensely taut storytelling and crystalline prose, The Land of Decoration is a gripping, psychologically complex story of good and evil, belonging and isolation, which casts new and startling light on how far we'll go to protect the things we love most.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review
This novel builds interesting uncertainties into its narrative: Is Judith capable of dark magic, or are the events in her life coincidence? Is the wrathful voice inside her somewhere in the realm of imaginary friendship, or is she schizophrenic? 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. We know that children are uncomfortable with ambiguity, but so are they, as this novel suggests, uncomfortable with the biblical literalism maintaining that the End really will come, and that all of their neighbors and teachers will be washed away or burned because they did not believe. The Land of Decoration puts a child at the crux of this interpretive dilemma, and our hearts go out to her.
—Amity Gaige
Publishers Weekly
British musician McCleen’s debut explores the complexities of love between a widowed father and his daughter. In her bedroom, 10-year-old Judith McPherson has recreated in miniatures the world she and other believers like her will go to after Armageddon—called the Land of Decoration (named after the biblical Promised Land), there are cookie-carton houses and a sun made of bead-strung wires. Judith is vocal about her beliefs at school; as a result, she incurs the wrath of class bully Neil Lewis. Struggling under the pressures of Neil’s cruelties and an increasingly distant father, Judith decides to try her hand at miracles. According to Judith, miracles are “what you see when you stop thinking, and they happen because someone made them.” Small wonders start to occur—she makes it snow, and she brings a lost cat home, but her newly acquired powers take a toll. Like many child narrators, Judith is precocious, and McCleen prudently avoids cutesiness, choosing instead to concentrate on Judith’s creativity. McCleen was raised in a fundamentalist religion, allowing her to write of a potentially sensational subject with nuance and sensitivity. 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. Agent: Clare Alexander, Aitken Alexander Associates. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

“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

Library Journal
This debut novel takes its title from the book of Ezekiel, in which the biblical prophet describes that place awaiting believers as a "Land of Decoration." In a rundown English factory town, 11-year-old Judith and her father cling to this promise of rapture as their daily lives become increasingly difficult. Judith's mother has died, bullies at school torment Judith constantly, and labor unrest unsettles the factory. As refuge, Judith creates her own "Land of Decoration," a miniature world composed of found objects where peace and happiness preside. When God speaks to her and "miracles" begin occurring, it is unclear whether she is receiving divine guidance or merely hearing voices. Her father, meanwhile, withdraws into a life of austerity and a hope for Armageddon as practiced by their church. When people retreat into alternate realities, it is common for their shaky foundations to crumble; indeed, this happens to Judith and her father. VERDICT As in Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English (2011), a young, likable narrator faces big challenges with perhaps a touch of extra-sensory power. Charming in detail, frustrating in that the bullies are so powerful, and somewhat derivative in plot, this novel does not have a clear audience, unfortunately.—Susanne Wells, MLS, Indianapolis
Kirkus Reviews
The tribulations of a girl who thinks she can work miracles. Ten-year-old Judith McPherson doesn't have an easy time of it at home or in school. Her widowed father belongs to a fundamentalist Christian sect that believes Armageddon is imminent; their weekend forays bringing the good/bad news to their neighbors in a provincial English factory town make her the butt of ruthless bullying by her classmates, in particular the odious Neil Lewis. Judith takes refuge from it all by crafting from trash picked up on the street a miniature world in her bedroom she calls the Land of Decoration, after the paradise flowing with milk and honey described in the Bible. Threatened with a particularly gruesome punishment by Neil, Judith follows the guidance of an internal voice she later identifies as God and places cotton snow all over the Land of Decoration; when an October blizzard closes school the next day, she's convinced she has wrought a miracle, and essays a few more to punish nasty Neil. With the arrival of a kindly new teacher who puts a stop to Neil's bullying, it seems Judith's troubles may be over, but they only get worse. Her father's refusal to participate in a strike ("Caesar's things to Caesar," he explains to Judith) leads to bad feelings with a coworker who happens to be Neil's brutal father. Neil leads a gang of boys in increasingly violent attacks on the McPhersons' house, and her father's furious response ultimately leads to his estrangement from their church. Judith thinks her miracles are to blame for the whole mess and comes scarily close to suicide before she realizes that her sad, distant father really does love her. Debut author McCleen creates a believable, compelling voice for the youthful narrator, and her portrait of a bereaved father is equally affecting, though the novel's claustrophobic atmosphere will not be to everyone's taste. An odd but haunting debut.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781469228778
  • Publisher: Brilliance Audio
  • Publication date: 3/5/2013
  • Format: CD
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 5.40 (h) x 0.70 (d)

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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Read an Excerpt

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.

 
Copyright © 2012 by Grace McCleen

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Reading Group Guide

1. Why do you think the author, Grace McCleen, told the story from Judith’s perspective? How did her intimate narrative style draw you in and make you understand Judith’s story? What was it like to read the observations of a ten-year-old girl like Judith?

2. Judith devotes so much of her time to creating the Land of Decoration. It’s where she escapes into her imagination, but what does this world mean to her? Why do you think Judith passes her hours there? What does she get from her imagined world that the real one might not give her?

3. Why do you think Judith has such appreciation for the small, discarded things she finds? Describe a time when you’ve seen beauty in something when others have not.

4. Father and Judith eat lamb and bitter greens for dinner, read scripture at the dinner table, and spend time talking about "End Times." It’s clear that religion is fundamental to their world. But how does is shape their daily life? How is it a source of comfort and inspiration? Or is it? Do you believe that this book portrays religion in a negative or positive light? Why?

5. Describe Judith’s relationship with her father. How has her father handled being a single-parent? What is the dynamic of their relationship and how does it change throughout the narrative?

6. Why does Neil Lewis torment Judith? Does your opinion of him change after you meet his father, Doug Lewis? What does this tell us about the influences parents have on their children?

7. Faith and imagination are two major themes in the book. What are some examples of Judith’s own faith? Her imagination? What do you think is the difference between the two? Is there a difference? What is the difference between faith and religion? Is there a difference?

8. Judith’s father is ostracized for not joining the strike at the factory in town and later, he struggles within his own church community and slips into depression. In a similar way, Judith is an outcast at school and finds herself alone, slipping further into a troubling fantasy world. How does Grace McCleen portray both Judith and her father as outcasts? What do you think she is trying to say about how society treats people who are different?

9. What is the meaning of Brother Michael’s story about the mustard seed? Why is Judith so intent on planting the seed? What doesn’t it mean when the seed won’t grow?

10. The death of Judith’s mother seems to have influenced both Judith and her father in profound ways. How has Judith’s father changed from before Judith was born? How has her mother’s death shaped Judith into the precocious girl that she is? What is Judith’s view on death?

11. Discuss the idea of forgiveness in the book (ie. Judith forgiving Neil; Father forgiving the vandals; Judith forgiving herself). What does it mean to truly forgive someone? How do you know? Do you think the characters in the book are successful in forgiving one another and themselves?

12. Judith believes in miracles. She says, "Miracles don’t have to be big, and they can happen in the unlikeliest places." What does she mean? What are some miracles you see in your own life?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 10, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Every year there seems to be a book that stays with me long afte

    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)

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 4, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    A very special little girl

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 12, 2013

    Well written story. Author did a good job setting the tone.

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2012

    Is it really the voice from God each time while Judith talking w

    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.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 11, 2012

    Just Okay

    Odd book...hated the ending.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 14, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

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