Judith McPherson is the 10-year-old heroine of this intriguing debut novel. Her mother died during her birth and her father remains grief stricken, isolating Judith from his life. The one thing they share is their devout fundamentalist Christian faith. Each night they read the Bible aloud and attend weekly meetings with the faithful. By day they walk the streets attempting to convert non-believers.
Judith has no friends, no TV and no worldly books to occupy her. She passes the time, waiting for Armageddon, by building a replica of The Promised Land, her Land of Decoration.
McCleen references The Bible throughout her book:
‘In the beginning there was an empty room.’
Judith makes her Land of Decoration, in her empty room, from: ‘table mats, brown corduroy and felt … rivers from crepe paper, cling film and shiny tinfoil and mountains from paper maiche and bark.’
Once she has finished creating her new land Judith remarks:
‘And I looked at the people and I looked at the animals and I looked at the land. And I saw they were good.’
In the first chapter McCleen paints a picture of a lonely, poor girl trapped in an isolated fundamentalist household.
Things begin to turn for Judith when, one Friday, she is threatened by the school bully Neil Lewis. She spends the weekend in fear of Monday: ‘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.’ Terrified of the school bully Judith is desperate to avoid going back to school.
The beauty of McCleen’s prose reflects the world Judith has created for herself:
‘I know about faith. The world in my room is made out of it. Out of faith I stitched the clouds. Out of faith I cut the moon and the stars. With faith I glued everything together and set it humming. This is because faith is like imagination. It sees something where there is nothing, it takes a leap, and suddenly you’re flying.’
Judith sees the Land of Decoration as her saviour, her final release from the school bully. Snow has closed her school once before. Judith uses white cotton to make snow in her own land hoping it will be replicated outside her window. All she needs is ‘a little faith’. The next morning ‘the whole world was white.’
As she begins her ‘miracles’, Judith also begins to talk to God. He talks back to her with blunt childlike ferocity, encouraging her to keep performing her miracles. Judith is sure she has divine power.
It is here that McCleen makes the reader contemplate Judith’s mental health. Her approach to life’s difficulties is based on her fundamentalist upbringing and the assurance that God will save her. Judith’s father refuses to believe her miracles, but God does.
As Judith continues to battle with Neil Lewis, her father’s life begins to parallel her own struggles. He has opted not to join the current workers strike and is marginalised for his stand. His fellow workers, most of them, turn a blind eye to his fundamentalist beliefs, but not to his refusal to join them in their stand. Judith, believing she now has the power to perform miracles under God’s guidance, devotes her days to fighting off the bullying advances of Neil Lewis as her father builds walls around them in an attempt to keep the outside world at bay.
The Land of Decoration is a haunting look at the way faith can destroy lives. McCleen has successfully used the voice of a 10-year old girl to question faith, a Christian fundamentalist faith that McCleen was brought up to believe in. The elegance of the prose and the affecting style makes this a startling debut novel.
By Sophia WhitfieldOn June 11, 2018
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