"I know about faith. The world in my room is made out of it."
If anyone personifies a crisis of faith and the traumas of adolescence, it’s ten-year-old Judith McPherson. Living with her working-class father, John, in an industrial town somewhere in Northern England during the miner strikes of the early 1980s, we see Judith trapped in an insular, fairy-tale world,
ever terrified that Neil Lewis, a bully from her class, is one day going to put her head down the toilet.
Strapped with her bible-thumping
father, who belongs to a strange sect called the Brothers which constantly preaches that Armageddon is near, all poor Judith can hear and think about is the toilet bowl with its cistern flushing. Ordered by her father to go to her room after enduring endless days of bible study, preaching and pondering, Judith exists in a world where "Saving Electricity and Being Quiet" are paramount. Any possibility of fatherly love for Judith has been long deadened by the tragedy of her mother and a quiet domestic animosity.
Cognizant of her audience and writing with simple, economical language that feels quite modern (even when the psychological aspects of the novel are so complex), McCleen’s quintessential tale of fantasy and escapism
reveals how one’s fear can become the most insidious enemy of all. Judith finds solace in her bedroom, where she
has constructed a world called the Land of Decoration that stretches from the second floorboard by the door to the radiator underneath the window. Amid rivers, mountains, hills and pastures, the land flows with milk and honey,
becoming deeply symbolic of Judith’s hope for a miracle.
Although McCleen’s set-up is intentionally grim, there is also great hope in a town where nothing seems to be where it should. Moving from the confinement of Judith’s house and her bedroom to the classroom of her local school with equal volatility, McCleen captures her heroine’s vulnerability and isolation. Trapped in a world of make-believe, Judith clings to her perceptions of security in God while Neil and his classmates join forces to sabotage this poor girl and her father's very existence. Only her new teacher, Mrs. Pierce, seems to be able to protect Judith from daily bullying in an environment where “god's servants are under attack through no fault if their own.”
The sudden closure of the steel factory, John McPherson's steadily dissolving love, the voice of God and Neil’s endless taunting of Judith add to the claustrophobic atmosphere of the tale. While at night God speaks to her, during the day the silence reaches up and threatens to strangle Judith beneath the fluorescent strip lights of the classroom. In short, sharp chapters, McCleen makes the reader a part of Judith’s bleak circumstances, her father’s emotional fatigue, the mounting pressures of the strike, Neil’s never-ending harassment (and terror) and Judith’s ultimate lesson that everything is possible at all times and all places and for all sorts of people.
Judith’s land of decoration acts as a buffer to the harsh realities of life while her interior world is made devastatingly real in a messy clash of emotion and faith. But it
is left to us and our imaginations to make Judith's life vivid as we fill it with color, feeling, purpose and emotion. Once we understand her journey, we can then perhaps learn to shape Judith’s world as our own.