Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Review: The Land of Decoration

Summary: 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. -- Henry Holt

I really hadn't heard much of anything about the new novel THE LAND OF DECORATION by Grace McCleen, but when I read the description, I thought it sounded fascinating. Plus it had a great blurb on the cover from Emma Donoghue, author of ROOM a book that I loved; and it also received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. It definitely sounded like a winner to me.

THE LAND OF DECORATION tells the story of Judith, a 10 year old girl who is deeply spiritual and has faith like few others. She spends a lot of time with her father and their church members, and she doesn't really have any friends her own age. In fact, quite the opposite, she is bullied in school for her strong beliefs and different lifestyle. As a way to help Judith cope, she has created a model miniature of the Promised Land in her room which she calls the Land of Decoration. This small-scaled model is made from bits of trash that Judith collects and then converts into biblical and real world scenes. When Judith thinks that she is able to create some real-life miracles with her Land of Decoration, her faith soars to a whole new level; and Judith actually believes that she is one of God's instruments. When her miracles end up having negative consequences, Judith is forced to reevaluate everything she has ever thought to be true.

If I'm being entirely honest, I did have some pretty high expectations for THE LAND OF DECORATION. The storyline sounds like nothing I've ever read, and I imagined this book to be part coming-of-age and part spiritual exploration. However, I was also somewhat hesitant to get my hopes up too much because I do think it can be difficult to effectively write a novel that encompasses so much from a child's point of view. I guess I was concerned whether I'd be able to buy the character and her actions.

In many ways, I did find Judith and her father to be believable. I thought, for the most part, that the author did a pretty good job of capturing the essence of a young girl with incredible faith; and she even threw in that Judith was extremely smart and mature for a child her age so that did give her a little leeway on some of Judith's thoughts and actions. I admit that I personally have a hard time understanding their dedication and devotion to their faith, but I didn't have any doubt that there are individuals out there who live this way.

The author has a very interesting background story and I think her insights are what gave this novel an authentic feel. Ms. McCleen grew up in a fundamentalist religion and she didn't have much contact with non-believers. I would venture to say that many of Judith's thoughts mirrored either Ms. McCleen's or someone else's that she knew as a child. Where the story differed a bit from Ms. McCleen's childhood concerned the amount of contact Judith had with others. Despite being shielded from a lot of real-world situations, Judith did attend school while the author was schooled at home. I actually enjoyed that Judith had to learn to interact with both worlds, and I thought it provided a great deal of thought for the reader on how a child would need to balance two very different sets of people.

I did enjoy THE LAND OF DECORATION... a lot. I might even go so far as to say that I loved it. I found the book to be incredibly interesting and entertaining too. It is one of those books that is a pleasure to read because the writing is darn good and the characters are so intriguing; and the story just draws you in as it builds to its stunning conclusion. However, I think it's how this book made me think which brought it to the next level for me. A few days after completing this novel, I am still thinking about Judith and her father; and I think that's a strong testament to the power of this novel.

THE LAND OF DECORATION would make a wonderful book club pick, and I actually hope it catches on with book groups around the country. There is a reading guide available with twelve thought-provoking questions. Some of the themes that you might want to further explore include faith, loss, grief, parent/child relationships, bullying, escapism, fear, the possibility of miracles, religion and spirituality. In addition, there are some very interesting symbols in the story that would be interesting to discuss.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.


Sandy Nawrot said...

That plot is very ambitious, even if it were told from an adult's perspective. To write it from the eyes of a child, and SUCCEED at it, is really a testament to this author. Great review Julie...I'm glad it lived up to the expectations!

Kay said...

This is the second review of this book that I've read in the last couple of days. I'm very intrigued and so will be looking for this one. It sounds like a unique take on quite a serious subject. Good job!

Karlie said...

This sounds very intriguing. It takes a lot of talent to be able to pull off a child narrator.

Beth F said...

I have to say that I would have likely not even considered this title until I read your enthusiastic review. I am now intrigued.

Serena said...

I like that Judith uses her imagination here to find the beauty even in trash, but I'm not really into these books if they are too preachy.

bermudaonion said...

Judith sounds like a fantastic character - I can see why this book is still on your mind. It sounds wonderful.

Jenners said...

I keep wavering about whether to read this or not. You're pushing me in the "read" direction with this review.

Laura Fabiani said...

I've read a lot of positive things about this book. I'm still debating whether to read it, though.