JUDITH McPherson is ten years old, lives with her distant father and is part of a religious cult which believes Armageddon is imminent.
Her life is full of necessary “Difficult Things”, such as Being Quiet and bitter greens, preaching about the end to people who don’t want to hear and Neil Lewis the school bully. But in Judith’s bedroom, as in the Book of Ezekiel, lies “the Land of Decoration”, a landscape of “planets and rainbows and suns”, created by her from sweet wrappers and pipe cleaners. “Miracles don’t have to be big, and they can happen in the unlikeliest places,” Matilda Wormwood-esque heroine Judith muses, one of a number of pearls of wisdom.
Indeed, McCleen’s first novel – one of the “Waterstones 11” inaugurated last year to annually celebrate the best in debut fiction – shimmers with little miracles.
Biblically, the Land of Decoration “lacked nothing, it was a miracle, a paradise”. Endearing, lonely and inquisitive, Judith’s own paradise is a place which makes her happy and with which, she discovers, she too is able to make miracles: when she covers the Land with shaving foam and pillow feathers, it snows unseasonably for days without end, freeing her from the tyranny of school and Neil Lewis, leading her to face the power of her own faith and pit herself against her father’s doubt.
Add to the mix drawn picket lines, unfortunate knitwear and the street outside her door ruled by marauding youths and there’s plenty of turmoil in Judith’s life.
Belief and faith and good and evil are constant considerations, but the engagement with the Bible goes beyond them and is intrinsic to the novel: McCleen is no stranger to growing up in a fundamentalist religion (or making models of little people either), and this authenticity pervades the novel, from Judith playing God in her own little Genesis – “In the beginning there was an empty room, a little bit of space, a little bit of light, a little bit of time…” – to a narrative voice that constantly quests for answers.
The chapters are short and sometimes tangential, the language plain, the sentences brief and the phrasing spare.
One of the most moving facets of the book, Judith’s relationship with her father, is expressed simply to heartstilling effect: “I have a secret. The secret is this: Father doesn’t love me.”
Sensory observations play a keen and key role: hot and cold, wobbles and quivers, light and dark: the very palpable machinations of her heart driving her to imagine it being gripped and let go, “like a little man clutching his hands and saying: ‘Oh, oh, oh’”. This is what belief must be like, or what it is like in words.
Based on this fine debut and striking new voice, the second coming of Grace McCleen deserves to be anticipated with great excitement indeed.