Grace McCleen has won the £10,000 Desmond Elliott prize for her first novel, The Land of Decoration, which draws on her own upbringing in a fundamentalist Christian sect.
The debut, which beat titles including Before I Go to Sleep by SJ Watson and Patrick McGuinness's The Last Hundred Days to win the award, is narrated by 10-year-old Judith McPherson, a member of the Christian Brotherhood of the Last Days. Bullied at school, Judith finds solace in the model world she creates in her bedroom: "An acorn cup becomes a bowl, toothpaste caps funnels for ocean liners, twigs knees for an ostrich." When she makes it snow in her Land of Decoration, and it snows in reality, she starts to believe she can work miracles.
Like Judith, McCleen grew up in a Christian sect in Wales. "There were happy moment and very difficult moments. I drew on the difficult parts to write The Land of Decoration," she said.The author was removed from school at the age of 10, and when she returned, a teacher advised her to apply for university. She read English literature at Oxford and did an MA at York. "When I left university I had a breakdown and couldn't stay in the cult any more, and that was my doorway out, but I stayed in religion through university," she said.
When she was 27 she wrote a long novel that "didn't work", so she developed a passage that began "In the beginning there was an empty room..." into The Land of Decoration. She landed an agent within a week.