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Originally published Saturday, April 21, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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Book review

'The Land of Decoration': Sad little girl pulls readers into her world

Grace McCleen's debut novel, "The Land of Decoration," is lyrically narrated by 10-year-old Judith, an unhappy but imaginative girl who believes she can perform miracles.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'The Land of Decoration'

by Grace McCleen

Henry Holt & Company,

308 pp., $25

Ten-year-old Judith McPherson is the latest in a long tradition of miserably unhappy children in literature. Living in a U.K. factory town with her depressed fundamentalist father (her mother died shortly after Judith's birth), she has no friends and is bullied so relentlessly at school that she fears for her life.

Judith, a bright and imaginative girl who believes that her father doesn't love her (she notes that he barely looks at her, and that "he is sad because of me"), finds solace in her own conversations with God, and in the "Land of Decoration" that she's created in her bedroom: a tiny, intricately detailed world, made of things that might be otherwise thrown away.

"Once a girl came to my room and said: 'What's all this rubbish?' " remembers Judith, in the book's first-person narrative. "Because to her that was what it looked like. But faith sees other things peeping through the cracks just itching to be noticed. Every day the cracks in this world get bigger. Every day new ones appear."

Divided into a series of brief, titled chapters, "The Land of Decoration" takes us through a period in Judith's life when, in response to misery, she comes to believe that she can perform miracles — that God is acting through her.

A sudden snowstorm closes her school, just when a bully has threatened to drown her in a toilet. A neighbor's cat, seemingly lost for good, returns no worse for wear. An ineffectual, uncaring teacher (he writes "Good work" on everything, even when Judith writes in an essay that she would rather die than go to school) suddenly leaves, replaced by one who is kind and perceptive. But Judith's conversations with God grow darker. "You know what I hate about You?" she says. "The way You just disappear when You feel like it. I wish I could disappear!"

Author Grace McCleen, in her debut novel, writes with a kind of plaintive lyricism; you ache for Judith, but keep reading, because there's something haunting and addictive about the rhythm of the sentences. This child is a writer, though she doesn't know it, and her stream of consciousness is filled with rich descriptions (Her elderly neighbor, who speaks in a "cracked-china voice," has lines around her mouth "and the red of her lips ran into them. It looked as though she was bleeding.")

Though Judith often seems much older than 10 — a constant danger with a child narrator — she nonetheless feels wrenchingly real; and you turn the pages hoping desperately that something will go right for her. Ultimately, McCleen doesn't tell us whether God or coincidence performed the miracles. Perhaps that's something Judith will figure out for herself, in happier days.

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic

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