McCleen herself was raised in a fundamentalist church and spent her teen years isolated from unbelievers. She lost her faith as an adult, but not her sympathy for the faithful, which saves “The Land of Decoration” from being another bitter story about a child in a cruel, God-fearing home. She’s after something more subtle and tragic, a sense of the way grief and orthodoxy can ferment in a cloistered mind. Judith’s psychosis, after all, is merely the effect of taking her father’s strict dogma more literally than he does. As calamity rains down on this family, daughter and dad seem equally beleaguered, equally sympathetic. Although McCleen never reveals what church Judith and her father attend, a crucial plot point suggests that they’re probably Jehovah’s Witnesses. No matter, really. The novel’s best moments offer a profound sense of the existential crisis that any believer eventually faces.
But McCleen also has a good ear for the blessings of comedy — the little moments of absurdity that children experience as they try to make sense of religion. (As a young Christian Scientist, I once choked on a contraband Sucret and felt certain that God was smiting me.) Although Judith is too kind to make fun of the elderly folks at church, she provides plenty of ironic humor about them as they putter around town trying to share the Good News with their sinful neighbors.