Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen


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The book's description for the publisher's website:

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.
OK, I'm officially flummoxed by The Land of Decoration  and by what others saw in there that I didn't and vice versa. I suppose I now know what it feels like for a reviewer who doesn't love the book that is loved by everyone else.

Not to be alarmed, though. I agree with the majority that Grace McCleen shows a natural talent for writing. It transported me into Judith's world in no time, demanded my attention and held it until the story was finished. It's great to find new voices in literature today who are, like the author of The Land of Decoration, devoted to their writing and their passion, and whose effort and skill shine through in their novels.

It was, therefore, with pleasure that I read Ms. McCleen's book. Judith is a very likable little girl, capable of evoking sympathy from others for her difficult predicament. What I had trouble with was the very mature voice for a ten-year-old, despite of how her upbringing might have made her grow up faster than other children. To me, it read more like an adult Judith telling the story of her own childhood. Another thing that caused me some amount of consternation was that I seemed to be the only reader thinking Judith suffered from the early onset of schizophrenia, rather than merely creating her own reality where she had more control over her life and that of people around her. Hearing voices that tell Judith what to do and having Judith actually follow up on 'the advice', believing that the voices in her head aren't made up but as real as that of her father, her teachers or her school bullies, and finally

attempting suicide, because the voice of God told her that it would fix all the troubles and unhappiness that Judith herself caused;

to me, all this spells schizophrenia, not magic realism, as a lot of readers and reviewers seem to think.

But this doesn't really take anything away from the quality of writing in The Land of Decoration. If anything it adds some points because through it, Grace McCleen gave her readers an opportunity and freedom to draw their own conclusions.

What does diminish this book slightly in my eyes, is the mentioned lack of authentic voice of a ten-year-old narrator plus my emotional disconnect from almost all characters, including Judith. I saw her torment, I could understand how people would empathetic to her despair but I felt like a detached observer. The only person I could truly feel for was her father, whose emotions and feeling, although not as evident as Judith's, had a lot more power and impact, and his enormous love for Judith was what saved her in the end. What saved them both.

When I finished the novel, I wished I had felt more strongly for poor little Judith, believing that it would make The Land of Decoration a five-star affair. But I couldn't and I didn't. I still recommend it for others to read, for people who are looking for a pleasant, satisfied feeling of investing their time wisely, which only comes from smart, quality writing that shows a lot of promise for its author.

FTC: I received The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen from the publisher, Henry Holt and Co. for review.