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by Grace McCleen

4*

Using nature’s debris, litter and anything else she can find, ten year old Judith builds a perfect fantasy world on the floor of her room – The Land of Decoration, a place she goes to escape from the harsh realities of school bullies, a home-life coloured by rigorous old school religion and a father still grieving for the wife he lost when Judith was born.

For the first few pages, I thought this was going to be a fairly light fantasy, a cosy tale of a child who escapes cold reality in a perfect world made of found-stuff and rubbish. Not so; the story takes on much darker tones when a visiting preacher inspires Judith to try her hand at making miracles while her father is crossing the picket lines and losing his religion, and Judith’s miracles appear to be working, at least on the much-hated school bully who, it seems, has home-life troubles of his own.

The Land of Decoration is a well-observed and finely-written tale that’s not at all what it seems on the surface. At times I was reminded of Mark Haddon, in the well-observed naiveté of a child’s mind and language, and of Jeanette Winterson, in the strange, all-embracing, world-excluding religiosity that colours every moment of a friendless child’s lonely life. There’s a dark and terrible sadness that seeps across the narrative, a dreadful emptiness, of unheated rooms, cold lino and fly-stained, naked forty-watt bulbs – and not just for Judith, other families seem just as unhappy, all looking to fill the holes in their lives with something – drink, religion, violence, fantasy worlds…

I have to say, this is nothing like the work of genius some of the testimonials on the cover would try to have you believe, but it is an absorbing, intriguing, highly original and genuinely exciting tale from a fine new writer. I can’t wait to see what Grace McCleen writes next.

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