April 2012

Grace McCleen

The power of ordinary miracles
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God. Faith. Creation. The ability to receive love. These may seem like concerns better suited to a philosopher than a 10-year-old girl. Yet in The Land of Decoration, readers are introduced to such heady concepts through the eyes of a child—and the result is both affecting and profound.

Judith McPherson, the sheltered, wildly imaginative narrator of Grace McCleen’s stunning debut, is perhaps more inclined to tackle these kinds of things than most children. A member of a fundamentalist Christian sect, Judith spends the majority of her time studying the Bible, preaching the Word with her widowed father and enduring the affections of her church’s stranger members. Her only pleasure comes from creating a miniature homage to the Old Testament in her bedroom. This tiny world—The Land of Decoration, as she calls it—is constructed from found objects and bits of discarded junk. Yet its creation and preservation is everything to Judith, who comes to believe she has the ability to commune with God and perform “real world” miracles by manipulating her little kingdom.

“I didn’t want to rule out the possibility [that these miracles were really happening],” McCleen says during a call to her home in London. “It was difficult making the miracles seem plausible to her, but also plausible simply as natural events.”

These miracles—which begin with a snowstorm Judith believes she conjured—escalate as she becomes the target of a schoolyard bully. Though the bully’s actions against the McPherson family grow increasingly violent and destructive, the dynamic is more complicated than a simple antagonizer/victim dichotomy.

“I think that when you get older you do realize that everyone is a product of their upbringing, their social and economic conditioning. I don’t think anyone is evil or bad,” McCleen says.

"One of the hardest things for humans to do is open themselves to another person."

A Welsh-born writer and musician, McCleen is in a unique position to assess such ambiguities, not to mention the effect of a person’s upbringing. Like Judith, McCleen grew up in a fundamentalist religion, which she left about 10 years ago. And also like Judith, she once thought she had a personal relationship with God. Though she says her own story is less extreme than that of her narrator, she admits that when writing the novel, she drew on emotions from her own childhood: “emotions like fear, grief, anger and helplessness.”

Still, one of the remarkable successes of The Land of Decoration is how universal it feels. McCleen didn’t want the story to be set in a particular country or time period, and she worked hard not to condemn or condone her characters’ faith. “Every culture can relate to God and childhood,” she says. “I hoped the effect would be almost mystical, like a children’s story.”

Indeed, when reading the novel, it’s hard not to think of children’s literature, with its big ideas and morals couched in small, contained plotlines. It’s this simultaneous complexity and simplicity that has earned The Land of Decoration comparisons to adult/young adult crossover novels like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Room. But while McCleen owes much to the canon of juvenile fiction (she cites Beatrix Potter as an influence), her greatest trove of source material comes from the Bible itself.

The opening of The Land of Decoration is a creation story in its own right: “In the beginning, there was an empty room, a little bit of space, a little bit of light, a little bit of time.” From there, McCleen goes on to explain the origins of Judith’s miniature world—the sun she crafted from a metal cage, the homes she made from dry grass and tree stumps.

By choosing to let a child tell the story, McCleen did her narrative a great service. Judith’s religiosity might seem heavy-handed coming from an older narrator, and her innocence is believable, while never feeling saccharine or contrived.

Over the course of the novel, both Judith and her father have their faith tested. But while he finds it increasingly difficult to honor a God who would allow such suffering, she becomes more resolute in her calling—and thanks to McCleen’s deft hand and steady plotting, such devotion rings true. Judith emerges as an honest and likable—if ultimately unreliable—guide.

Still, while readers come to see discrepancies between real-world events and Judith’s imagination, McCleen leaves the issue of miracles open-ended. Spirituality and reality need not be at odds, she feels, and in short, metaphysical passages, she gestures toward the scientific existence of things that seem impossible.

“When I was in my religion—which I was until I was 22—I believed that miracles had ceased in Jesus’ day,” McCleen says. “But then I left my religion and became very interested in spirituality. And there are people these days who believe that miracles still happen. I’m not sure. . . . I could see how something could appear to be a miracle, but also make scientific sense. Now I’m open to many things which I wasn’t when I believed in a single God.”

The greatest miracles, she believes, are ones that may not seem particularly miraculous—every­day miracles, like “a father and daughter finally showing love.” And as Judith and her father struggle to understand each other and combat hardship—both corporal and spiritual—the difficulty and importance of being loved become increasingly apparent. “One of the hardest things for humans to do is to open themselves to another person,” McCleen says. “It can be terrifying and it can be the most powerful thing you’ll ever experience. It’s frightening to be so exposed.”

The Land of Decoration is a book that jumps, head first, into such raw terror and redemptive love. On the outside, it may seem like a small story about small things. But at its core, it’s about the biggest issues a person can encounter—how to confront the unknown, how to negotiate faith and how to be a decent and loving human being.

The fact that Grace McCleen is able to address these matters with such subtlety and delicacy is no small miracle itself.

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