Ten-year-old Judith isn’t very concerned that Armageddon is coming.
In fact, she’s not sorry that soon “nothing of this old world will be left”.
“[I]t’s good because polar bears are starving and trees are dying and if you put a plastic bag in the earth it will never go away and the earth has had enough of plastic bags. And because in the new world I will see my mother.”
That’s Judith’s voice.
She sounds ten, doesn’t she? And the uneven cadence, that feels very ten-ish, too.
Then, it’s easy to imagine her voice lowered, just a smidge, with that bit about her mother.
That could be because the pseudo-orphan child-narrator is a familiar character.
But Judith’s story manages to avoid the most predictable tropes of that tale.
She misses her mother in a very matter-of-fact way. And although that loss hovers behind her daily existence, Judith has other things on her mind these days.
Even more pressing than looming Armageddon? Neil Lewis. The same Neil Lewis who has threatened to stick her head in the toilet on Monday. Neil Lewis, the bully.
Maybe Neil bullies Judith because she tromps around town, proselytizing, warning her neighbours of the dangers to their souls.
Maybe he bullies her because she doesn’t have any friends.
Perhaps because she dresses funny.
Perhaps because she is often picking up promising bits of trash to use as construction materials in the miniature world she has created in her room.
Or maybe he’s just a bully.
Neil is also a non-believer. He is in the majority.
“People don’t believe in very much. They don’t believe politicians and they don’t believe adverts and they don’t believe things written on packets of food in the Co-op. Lots of them don’t believe in God either. Father says it’s because science has explained so many things people think they should be able to know how everything happens before they believe it, but I think there is another reason.”
Judith thinks about this kind of thing a lot. More than many ten-year-old children.
And, yet, in her appropriately child-like way, as much time as she spends thinking about things, a lot of things remain intact, unexamined, unchallenged. Much of Judith’s worldview is simple repetition, memorization of the principles of her father’s fundamentalist faith.
But the vague threat of Armageddon pales in the face of the real dangers she faces at the hands of Neil and his friends. And it’s this threat which fundamentally changes the world that Judith inhabits.
“I picked up the paper and unrolled it. What I saw didn’t make sense. At the top was the word ‘METAPHOR’. Beneath it was a picture of a girl kneeling in front of a man. Something was coming out of the man’s trousers. It looked like a snake. A wave of heat passed over me and after the wave sickness. At the bottom of the picture there were four words. One of them was my name.”
It seems like such a small thing, this note, passed back and forth between classmates, details added to the drawing until the paper lands in Judith’s hands.
But of course there’s nothing small about it.
(The idea of what’s big and what’s small plays a significant role in this novel, from the ‘smallness’ of people in relationship to a divine being and the ‘greatness’ of the promise of the next world, to the ‘smallness’ of the people Judith creates in her diorama and the ‘greatness’ that she comes to wield through her creation.)
Nonetheless, after this day at school, Judith describes its events to her father like this:
“How was school?” Father said when he got in.
“We’ve got a new teacher,” I said. “She read us poetry.”
“Good,” Father said. He filled the kettle.
“She read out a poem about winter.”
“Did she now?” He put the lid on the kettle and switched it on.
“And we talked about metaphor.”
“Then we all wrote poems and Mrs Pierce liked mine.”
In talking to her father, Judith creates an alternate version of her day, just as she creates scenes in the miniature world in her room to which she retreats.
Judith is just old enough to want to protect her father from the truth of Neil’s bullying, even though she is not immediately aware of her father’s love for her. The guilt she feels over her mother’s death (which was related to Judith’s birth) overshadows their relationship. And her father is not an expressive man.
“I don’t know what Father’s perfect day would be like. I expect it would be full of Necessary Things like Bible study and preaching and pondering and Saving Electricity and Being Quiet and Wasting Not Wanting. In which case he has his perfect day all the time.
Or perhaps his idea of a perfect day vanished a long time ago and he has forgotten how to imagine a new one.”
One might think that Grace McCleen has lost track of Judith’s voice: that this last observation was too acute for a ten-year-old girl. But it really is Judith talking about Judith.
She does not know how to imagine a new perfect day in this world. She can imagine them in the world she has created, in the diorama that fills her room, but not in this world. And, so, Armageddon might as well come.
Judith’s voice is sustained consistently throughout the novel. Her perspective on adult matters is part innocence and part limited-experience, and her observations provide just enough for the reader to gain a wider understanding of the difficulties that her father is facing without fully explaining.
In this respect, the narration is relatively simple (though the author has to work hard to make this look easy).
But the parallel worlds in Grace McCleen’s novel add complexity to this familiar tale (the scripture-based worldview of the believers, the real world that surrounds Judith at home and at school, and the world created in Judith’s bedroom from found-objects and things that were once her mother’s).
In which world(s) do we put our faith? How is it that we come to believe in ourselves? What happens when we discover our own power just as our own powerlessness is being exploited by someone else? How do we grapple with contradictions like that, with questions that go to the very heart of who we are, questions that we start asking when we are young and, most often, continue to ask ourselves throughout our lives?
The Land of Decoration is an absorbing and emotive read; Grace McCleen’s debut is likely to provoke a great deal of discussion. You can peek at the trailer here.