In our final chat about Grace McCleen’s debut novel, Alex, Lora and I revel in the brilliance of McCleen’s writing. She beautifully balances the darkness of the book’s themes of bullying and isolation with the humorous, engaging voice of 10-year-old heroine, Judith, and manages to surprise us along the way.
Lora: Hi, ladies!
Laurie: So, our final chat about The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen. Did you love it or did you love it???
Lora: I LOVED IT! Could not put it down. McCleen is a brilliant writer.
Alex: I was on the edge of my seat. Seriously thrilling stuff.
Laurie: It is so simple really, when you think about what happens, what the events are, but it’s true, you don’t have any clue how it’s going to turn out, and it’s really a surprise.
Alex: It is simple, but she does it so cleverly. I feel naive for my earlier perceptions that it was a more innocent read and upbeat — I laughed through the observations of Judith and then it just got darker and darker without my noticing until suddenly…I will say no more!
Laurie: And McCleen could absolutely have made it melodramatic, but she didn’t and it’s all the more brilliant for that. And yet those final scenes in Judith’s room are so devastating and dark. And we will say no more!
Lora: She brings so much depth to simple things.
Alex: That’s what makes them so devastating, because she shocks you with them.
Laurie: Even though, really, the whole book is shocking when you lay the facts bare.
Alex: McCleen somehow lulls you into thinking there’s a silver lining, that it’s a normal balance of good and bad in this girl’s life.
Lora: But things are getting darker and darker throughout the chapters.
Laurie: And there’s Judith’s humorous, innocent voice, lulling us into complacency, and then BANG! McCleen slams you with what’s really going on.
Alex: I know. Weakening us with her insights — it’s impossible to resist Judith’s humour, and then, yes, McCleen hits you with the truth.
Lora: I am so in love with Judith. Her voice was perfect. I found the most heart-wrenching scenes to be the ones with her and her father.
Alex: I know! Incredible! When he finally gets her, he becomes so much more human and “normal” and she becomes less so.
Laurie: And when we finally understand the situation with her mum…lord!
Lora: I didn’t think we would ever see that side of him. But again, it was sincere — the revelation wasn’t at all forced.
Laurie: How he maintained faith that long is a miracle in itself.
Alex: It is indeed a miracle! I think he was blindly following his faith because he had nothing else and it reminded him of his wife.
Lora: Yes, it seemed he was doing it in his wife’s memory, because she had been so dedicated. I think Judith reminded him of her mum and what happened, sadly.
Laurie: It was the only way he could keep going, the only thing to hold onto. It was unfortunate that the thing he could move forward with wasn’t Judith. And, of course, Judith had no clue.
Alex: In order to believe his wife didn’t die for nothing he had to continue to believe. Poor Judith!
Lora: I wonder what was going on with Neil.
Laurie: I have to say, poor Neil — really crap life. Although he was a bully.
Alex: REALLY? I hated him! Though I guess it was hardly his fault.
Lora: With his dad, Doug, being such a terrible guy… It was easy to hate him before we met Doug.
Laurie: Yes. Although I do feel bad for Judith obviously. But remember that scene when his dad came in the class and Neil just shrank and turned whiter? It was awful. Bullying someone else was the only power he had in his life, turning all his anger and despair on others.
Lora: Exactly. It was all he knew.
Alex: True, bullies make bullies.
Laurie: He needed someone to recognize that and help him. And there was no one.
Lora: I really disliked him for what he was doing to Judith — as we said before, kids are so cruel sometimes. But Doug was an absolute nightmare. And McCleen leaves it to the imagination, what actually happens to Neil at home.
Laurie: And there was that 15-year-old girlfriend of Doug’s with the baby and the needle marks between her toes.
Alex: What was with the needle marks? Is that drugs? That’s crazy!
Laurie: Yeah, drugs…as in addict. No other reason for those needle marks to be there.
Alex: That scene was just terrifying.
Laurie: So imagine what life was like at home for Neil and the examples set for him. Still he was a bully and awful to Judith.
Alex: Such a contrast in this story – the imagined end of the world versus scenes like that, which to me feel even more bleak than the end of the world.
Laurie: No wonder Judith longs for Armageddon and the heaven that is the Land of Decoration.
Lora: I know! The idea of a whole new world with no pain would be all I would look forward to as well.
Alex: Exactly! I think there’s a huge similarity there. Judith and her family are wishing for the end of the world, so they can sort of evaporate, and the other characters, Doug and his teenage lover, are actually creating that sensation for themselves. I mean, that’s how I always imagined heroin to be.
Laurie: So true! And Gordon from the church hall, with his past drug addiction and new-found faith and mints has moved from one state to the other.
Alex: Yes, Gordon! And even with his mints McCleen is suggesting he has traded one addiction for another. It’s like she’s commenting on how controlled people are by everything. It’s so funny that one is positioned as an acceptable way to wish for something and the other is just disgrace.
Laurie: Faith is an addiction. Look at Judith’s father: He can’t stop using that as a coping mechanism and what is addiction but that?
Alex: Of course! That is just another way of relinquishing certain responsibilities.
Lora: And making yourself feel better about the state of your life.
Alex: Some people get messed up, others put these strict parameters in place.
Laurie: Control. It’s all about control.
Alex: Absolutely. Control versus giving up on being in control. Fascinating and depressing all at once.
Laurie, you said something interesting the other day about Mrs. Pierce. I think she fits here because she also kind of shies away from taking control of the Judith situation.
Laurie: Yes, to a certain extent, although I can see how it would be hard to figure out what the heck was going on.
Alex: UNTIL her dad had the realization for himself, he would have sworn that their faith was right.
Laurie: And Judith would have just clammed up. Not to mention God/Satan/other Judith would have just started screaming.
Alex: I loved McCleen’s writing. And I loved it being set in England, the regional dialect and details. I really loved feeling like I was an insider. It felt bleaker and closer to home because I know those places. And this is my favourite kind of story: one where you can’t tell where it’s going, but you’re completely immersed in the journey. It also wasn’t too melancholy; it was raw and real, but McCleen gave you a sense that at the end, things would be better.
Lora: It was a perfect balance. I’m hard-pressed to think of something I didn’t like about McCleen’s writing. It was absolutely brilliant.
Laurie: Such a great voice. Such great characters. Such great pacing. And such a great climax.
Alex: There’s the sense that Judith and her father still have work to do together. That doesn’t take away from the fact that they suffered so much already, but it gives you hope. Like they’re standing on the edge of something new, but they’re standing there united.
Laurie: In a new land, so to speak.
Lora: And it’s not what Judith thought it would be, but it’s even better.
Laurie: Just what I was going to say! Because it’s real. Cue the music. Exit. Thanks for the chat, ladies. Next time, we’ll be discussing our next book club pick, Sarah Winman’s When God Was a Rabbit. Talk to you then!