Religious people talk to God and some say it’s a sign of madness when God talks back (see When God Talks Back: Madness or Mysticism by Tasha E. Mansfield). Judith and her father have no doubt spent the ten years since her mother’s death talking to a God who doesn’t respond, until, that is, when Judith needs a miracle to prevent bullying from Neil Lewis et al at school.
The Land of Decoration is arranged as a Pentateuch – in five books. Judith (which book of the same name in the Bible has a manipulative heroine who convinces others of the power of God to save them) has been taught that the end of the world is coming and has spent her young life knocking on doors with her fundamentalist father, reading from scripture and warning those who stop to listen about Armageddon and what they believe lies beyond. Er, that is, then, trying to convince others of the power of God to save them.
The Land of Decoration is the Utopia promised in the Bible and the motherless and friendless Judith plays God in her own house by creating this land in miniature in her own bedroom. Everything she sees outside, therefore, say a matchbox, a pipe cleaner, a sweet wrapper, has the potential to be a person, an ocean or a house. The devil’s in the detail.
Judith has been brought up with the firm belief that the end of the world is coming and, just like any bullied child threatened with a pasting (or a head down a toilet) the next time they set foot in school, the end of Judith’s world really is nigh. When Judith makes it snow in her own Land of Decoration, she wakes to find it’s snowed in the real world, school is cancelled and she is saved from bullying – at least for that week. Judith is now certain that she has the power to cause miracles. Judith then finds allies in Mrs. Pierce, the new form teacher drafted in when the former teacher has a breakdown, as well as in the not necessarily benevolent God with whom she begins to hold entire conversations.
Apart from God, her only friends are adults: either the teacher, Mrs. Pew the neighbour, or others at the church hall. But the more support Judith has from the teacher, the more the bullying affects her and then her father. To the point where he virtually barricades them into their home. All this while Judith’s father (we never know his name) is himself persecuted at work for continuing to work at the factory while a strike takes place. Judith and her father are soon experiencing a purgatory in their own town.
I won’t go any further into the story as I don’t want to spoil it. I found it a very quick, enjoyable, though sad in some ways, two-day read and loved all the description and detail – even ten year old Judith’s ventures into philosophical realms were believable given the very adult nature of the small social life she had. I got the impression she would have been quite the stranger to the sleepover or the Happy Meal. Does her father blame Judith for her mother’s death? Does he blame God or their religion? Does Judith blame herself?
I loved that she tells herself “that small things are big and big things are small, that veins run like rivers and hairs grow like grass and a hummock of moss to a beetle looks like a forest, and the shapes of the countries and clouds of the earth look like the colours in marbles from space.” And “if I am dust then I am also the dust of stars.” There is some beautiful writing about the little details that are all around us and which we can often overlook. See the video sample from Random House above.
When children are bullied, they often take comfort in their imagination and creating a version of her real world with its features of mountain, factory, streets and sea, was both Judith’s idea of escape and comfort. Something she could escape to, which she could control, within a reality where she had very little control at all. When God talks back to her, it’s at the point where she’s feeling utterly friendless and so, for much of the book, God and Mrs. Pierce and other adults are her only friends. Her father still grieves and can sometimes appear aloof, detached and weighed down with living. In fact, there is a message here that even a strong religious faith can’t save us from the inhumanity of man.
I have only one minor quibble with The Land Of Decoration. There was something towards the end of the book that I found hard to believe possible for this character in this particular tale. But there are true stories on the news almost every year telling us that it can and does. One thing’s for sure: this book didn’t exactly make me want to rush out and join the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or any other fundamentalist group. I will not succumb to the lure of The Watchtower when it’s next proffered my way.
I closed the book with the hope that Judith and her father would survive and fare well in the future, no matter what. They were both resourceful, imaginative and strong-willed characters, all the stronger for surviving Judith’s ‘miracles’, child and adult bullying, grief and loss.
With delightful description and some perceptive rumination, slickly good-humoured and unsettling in turns, The Land of Decoration receives a full four stars from me. Did God talk back? You decide. More please, Grace McCleen, I wonder what you’ll write next?