In this debut novel, Judith is 10, and ready for Armageddon. What child wouldn’t prefer the perfect afterlife the Bible promises, where she’ll be reunited with her mother, to the grey, no-nonsense life she shares with her distant father? When her earthbound days are filled with Necessary Things, such as bitter greens for dinner and preaching door to door in her down-and-out corner of Wales? While she waits, though, Judith is creating a miniature paradise in her room, with brown corduroy fields, mirrors for oceans and acorn caps for soup bowls. After a classmate threatens to drown her in a toilet, Judith uses cotton balls and shaving cream to make it snow in her pretend world. When the real one is covered in snow the next morning and school is closed, Judith believes her faith has enabled her to perform a miracle. But when she decides to use her power to teach her bully a lesson, things begin to look even darker. Her father’s factory goes on strike, and Judith learns there are grown-up bullies, too. And the God-voice inside her head, which at first encouraged her in her divine undertakings, is now mean and taunting, and muddying her understanding of good and evil.
The Land of Decoration arrived with plenty of publishing-world fanfare. The book even has its own “trailer,” which you can watch on the author’s website. There, you’ll also learn McCleen “grew up in a fundamentalist religion and didn’t have much contact with non-believers”—which might explain why McCleen so believably captures her young narrator’s voice, and why you find yourself nearly clapping when a new teacher takes an interest in Judith’s well-being. It might also explain a few lapses into cliché, such as beginning the novel with “In the beginning.” Still, it’s clear McCleen has a talent for creation. May she wield her power wisely.