So we enter these pages skeptical but hopeful. The little girl, Judith, is busy playing the God of Genesis: “In the beginning there was an empty room.” She makes fields from carpet and pieces of felt, homes from cookie cartons and matchboxes, animals from paper and glitter. “And I looked at the people and I looked at the animals and I looked at the land,” she says divinely. “And I saw they were good.”
Not much is good, though, in Judith’s real life. Her father works in a steel mill riven with labor disputes. The death of his wife years earlier has left him stern and unaffectionate. He leads Judith through daily Bible study with a heavy emphasis on discipline, righteousness and Judgment Day, which she soaks up like milk and honey. After all, the grim world that she and her father trudge through can’t offer anything like what paradise will. “It’s a good thing Armageddon is coming,” she says, “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 yearning, mixed with her father’s toxic pessimism, is the novel’s most powerful element, and a sobering demonstration of how children struggle to integrate their parents’ faith into their own fresh experience of the world.
Friendless and tormented by school bullies who escaped from “Lord of the Flies,” Judith retreats further and further into her religious imagination. That preoccupation turns ominous when a traveling preacher inspires her to have faith in miracles. As her classmates grow more cruel and her father finds himself on the violent side of a factory strike, Judith clings to the stark dogma and spiritual platitudes of her faith. Soon, she’s hearing a voice taunting her to be “God’s Instrument,” and she’s convinced that she can control events in the real world by manipulating the figures that populate her toy village. “I know about faith,” she says. “The world in my room is made out of it.” The result is an earnest little girl who hovers somewhere between Joan of Arc and Carrie.
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.
But, alas, “The Land of Decoration” is not in the same room as Donoghue’s great novel. McCleen’s plot is arguably more complex, but the voice of her little narrator can’t carry this story all the way to heaven. Much of the language here is too flat and pedestrian. Other passages soar into flights of preciousness that are like reading a thousand greeting cards at a Christian bookstore: “Miracles don’t have to be big,” Judith mutters over her mustard seeds. “They can happen in the unlikeliest places. . . . Miracles are what you see when you stop thinking.” Tell it to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, sister. In the end, even as it hurtles along toward a melodramatic climax, “The Land of Decoration” isn’t written tightly enough for the cultural and psychological issues it wants to explore.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.