To say that our narrator, 10-year-old Judith McPherson, leads a sheltered life would be something of an understatement. She lives in a depressing, sparsely furnished house somewhere in Wales, we assume in the 1980s. Her father John works in a factory where union action is threatened and tensions are rife. He raises Judith alone because her mother Sarah has died.
Judith is lonely but she knows how to amuse herself (and us – she's funny). She spends a lot of time alone in her room building a miniature Land of Decoration with compact mirrors for lakes, sweet wrappers for flowers and pipe-cleaner people
Judith and John's small, sad life is alternately enhanced and made worse by their involvement with fundamentalist Christian religion. The church offers forms of comfort and community in the shape of old ladies who press boiled sweets on Judith and knit her gigantic orange ponchos. But it's also a source of humiliation and horror for a child: she must go on house visits with her father to spread the word and try to win converts.
Not surprisingly, Judith is bullied at school. In fact, she has been marked out for special attention by the most vicious and aggressive of bullies, Neil Lewis, a boy who would physically harm her at the earliest opportunity. Judith's only chance to fight back is with the only power she knows – that of God.
She begins to imagine that she can influence events by changing the shape of the Land of Decoration. When she makes it snow on her model world, using sugar, flour and cotton wool, and it then snows the next day in the real world, she starts to believe that God is helping her get what she wants. A day of snow means a day off school so that she doesn't have to face the bullies.
Grace McLeen's writing is deep, fantastical and powerful, and she really lets us into the heart of this tender, gentle little girl. Judith has a great sense of humour, especially when describing the church's views on "Tactics of Evasion" (people not answering their doors or, on one occasion, pouring a bucket of water over her father) and on people who "Get In With the Wrong Crowd."
The author herself grew up in a fundamentalist religion, wherein she "did not have much contact with non-believers." She has been able to observe a fascinating, self-contained world with generosity, wonder and spirit. This is a wonderful gem of a debut novel.