Nine-year-old Ira-Abel Rawles lives on Hook Farm in the village of Underwhelem. Next to the farm is Gore Woods, Ira’s sanctuary, overseen by Orlam, the all-seeing lamb’s eyeball who is Ira-Abel’s guardian and protector. Here, drawing on the rituals, children’s songs, chants and superstitions of the rural West Country of England, Ira-Abel creates the twin realm through which she can make sense of an increasingly confusing and frightening world.
Orlam follows Ira and the inhabitants of Underwhelem month by month through the last year of her childhood innocence. The result is a poem-sequence of light and shadow – suffused with hints of violence, sexual confusion and perversion, the oppression of family, but also ecstatic moments in sunlit clearings, song and bawdy humour. The broad theme is ultimately one of love – carried by Ira’s personal Christ, the constantly bleeding soldier-ghost Wyman-Elvis, who bears ‘The Word’: Love Me Tender.
Orlam is not only a remarkable coming-of-age tale, but the first full-length book written in the Dorset dialect for many decades. Orlam also reveals P J Harvey as not only one of the most talented songwriters of the age, but a gifted poet – whose formal skill, transforming eye and ear for the lyric line has produced a strange and moving poem like no other.