Small wonders

The Land of Decoration, by Grace McCleen, Chatto & Windus, £12.99, 304 pages

If fiction is life in microcosm, then the most intricate examples of the art are those in which protagonists create their own miniature worlds. Such stories are ships in a bottle, bottled. The fragile scale model of Tokyo in Andrew Miller’s One Morning Like a Bird is a metaphor for a complex character coming to a provisional understanding of himself. The struggle of an architect to model the shape of a grieving nation in a 9/11 memorial provides the architecture of Amy Waldman’s The Submission. In Jorge Luis Borges’s mind-expanding Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, a cabal conspires to imagine the fictitious world of Tlön in such magnificent detail that Earth itself begins to resemble it.

It is in this tradition of microcosmic fiction that one might tentatively place Grace McCleen’s loveable, unique and thrillingly uncategorisable debut novel, The Land of Decoration. Assuming that it is a novel, of course, for it wears the designation playfully, the way Venetians wear masks to the carnival. This book is an allegory disguised as a sermon, the simulation of a partial autobiography, an impersonation of a heart-breaking psychological analysis of loneliness standing in for a useful self-help book, all the while posing as a brilliant page-turning story. Although not necessarily in that order.

McCleen’s set-up, at least, is straightforward. Two newlyweds convert to a strict Christian denomination and move to an unnamed British industrial town to be evangelists. The woman dies in tragic circumstances, leaving the inconsolable widower to bring up their newborn daughter. We join the action when the daughter, Judith, is 10 and crushingly, achingly lonely. The sect strictly defines her life, yet has no adherents of her generation. At school she is an outcast, viciously bullied. Her father is detached, drowning in his own sadness.

Judith’s one consolation is the beautiful and elaborate model of a utopian world she builds in her bedroom from abandoned objects she collects. Sweet wrappers become rainbows, shoelaces are pythons, gauze is sky. Judith’s little world – named the Land of Decoration in an allusion to the Israelites’ promised land – is rendered in exquisite detail. Its splendour and contrast to the grim awfulness of Judith’s small town are movingly handled. McCleen evokes crap Britain to perfection: “In our town nothing seems to be where it should. There are car engines in gardens and plastic bags in bushes and shopping trolleys in the river ... walls with words on and signs with words crossed out.” Her portrayal of the dysfunctional townsfolk is deft and often funny. Judith’s defeated, alcoholic teacher writes “Good work” at the bottom of whatever she hands in to him, even when her essay reads: “I would rather die than go to school.”

It would take a miracle to save such an exhausted town, and the story takes a metaphysical turn when the Land of Decoration begins to interact strangely with events in the real world. Scenarios that Judith plays out in miniature begin to have echoes beyond her room – at first wondrous, then increasingly disturbing. McCleen balances her narrative so that we remain unsure whether faith or coincidence is behind these happenings, and it is in this ambiguity that the power of her novel becomes apparent.

“People don’t believe in very much,” she writes. “They don’t believe politicians and they don’t believe adverts and they don’t believe things written on packets of food in the Co-op.” McCleen’s achievement is to show the desolation left in the absence of faith – and the dangers of too much faith – by demonstrating the real power of belief systems to influence outcomes. As the town is brought to its knees by a union strike in its only major workplace, and Judith’s mundane struggle with her bullying nemesis becomes an existential showdown between good and evil, we begin to fear the end of this meticulously constructed world – or at least, of Judith’s world.

This is an extraordinary and peculiarly haunting novel. We live in an age where the complex and the monumental are habitually brought down to size. Infographics summarise nations, speeches are reduced to soundbites. McCleen’s novel swims against this tide by invoking the power of tiny things to suggest the bigger picture. Her insistence is that great beauty and meaning have their source in little things and little people. A story about a small person’s small antithesis of a small town full of small-minded people, this is a big-hearted novel.

Chris Cleave is author of ‘The Other Hand’. His next novel, ‘Gold’, will be published in the UK in June (Sceptre) and in the US in July (Simon & Schuster)

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