If you go by the Bible, earth was a place we were exiled to. Logically, we should be merely enduring life, showing gratitude for the gifts life does bring, but mostly waiting to get into Heaven. Most of us, though, whether we believe in Heaven or not, don’t think about the afterlife all of the time. We distract ourselves with relationships and jobs and ice cream and television, and manage to have a bit of fun between birth and death. Judith McPherson, the ten-year-old narrator of Grace McCleen’s The Land of Decoration, doesn’t have any of these things, so she consoles herself by building a model world in her room out of bits of rubbish she finds. Judith’s “Land of Decoration” is a vision of her perfect world, the world she hopes she will be taken to in the afterlife. Tellingly, it looks a lot like her real world, only with a few important tweaks.
In the Land of Decoration, Judith’s strict and phlegmatic father is able to bear looking at her. Her mother, who died giving birth to Judith, is alive and gives Judith all the things her father doesn’t believe are healthy or safe: fish and chips, hot air balloon rides. Meanwhile, in the real world, Judith is relentlessly bullied at school and ignored by her burn-out teacher. When she’s not at school, she and her father spend their free time going door to door, trying to teach people about the impending Armageddon. Judith knows a lot about God: “There weren’t many people to talk to except Father, so I began talking to God. I always supposed it was just a matter of time before He answered me.” And someone does answer, though we are never explicitly told whether that someone is God, or Judith herself, or something else altogether. Judith begins to hear what she believes is God’s voice after she performs a miracle: she makes it snow to avoid getting her head shoved into the toilet by a vile little boy at school.
The moment Judith realizes she has the power to make it snow is beautiful and thrilling. She finally feels the sense of empowerment and control over her world that all neglected children hope for. She thinks, “this had been waiting to happen to me… The miracles had been waiting all the time, and so had I. And now the waiting was over…” The moment generates an excitement that propels the reader all the way through the rest of the book, and for that moment alone, The Land of Decoration is a memorable and affecting read.
But McCleen goes further than that. She elicits a sense of magic and wonder, then tethers us, like hot air balloons, to earth by involving us in the very real-world problems that Judith’s new powers create. Whether Armageddon is coming or not, we still have to learn how to live in the world as it is. Both Judith and her father, in different ways, struggle with how to do this while maintaining their faith. In the process, they struggle with learning to understand one another. In many ways, this is a coming-of-age story for Judith. She sees herself, as most children do, as being at the center of her world, which for a sensitive child in unsympathetic surroundings is more a burden than anything else. Part of growing up means learning when we are and are not responsible for things and to what extent. She is also taught, through her religion, to see things in black-and-white, but growing up means letting go of such strict delineations.
In a way, McCleen’s novel is a clever extended metaphor for exactly the kind of middle-ground thinking Judith must learn. Judith struggles with her faith, but might losing faith in one belief simply mean gaining faith in another? The people in Judith’s world don’t see the events of the novel as miraculous, but Judith sees miracles everywhere, because her definition allows for more leeway than most. What constitutes a miracle, then? We never learn how real Judith’s interactions with God are, but does it matter? They are real enough to affect her life, and thereby the lives of the people around her.
For a book that asks such big questions, The Land of Decoration is a winningly simple story. It doesn’t answer all the questions it poses, but it does make the point that how we answer them determines how we live our time here on earth, notwithstanding the promise of any heavenly afterlife. Reading books as thoughtful and entertaining as this is a pretty good way to spend some of that time.