Although more a standoffish admirer of P.J. Harvey’s music than an outright fan, I was nevertheless intrigued on reading a description of her book Orlam (when it was published last year) as “a novel-in-verse written in dense Dorset vernacular”: not the sort of work one might typically expect from a rockstar-turned-author. When I picked up a copy from a bookshop shelf last month I liked what I saw of the verse therein. At the next opportunity I bought the book, going on to read it cover to cover by the end of that same day.

It didn’t strike me as much like a novel, nor would I categorize it as a single long narrative poem: rather it seemed to me “a series of lyrical vignettes” in which the outline of a larger narrative could be discerned. Like a song-cycle where the reader is called upon to supply much of the music, it’s something akin to a concept album in book form. To say it presents an unsentimental look at rural life is putting it very mildly: in no way is it a pastoral idyll. There are moments of quiet beauty, but the prevailing mood is one of grim grotesquerie (“suffused with violence, sexual confusion and perversity” as the blurb on the back cover puts it). There is most assuredly “something nasty in the woodshed”.

I think the decision to use Dorset dialect words and phrases more or less liberally throughout works very well indeed. Their buzz and burr conjures up an intense sense of place that is meanwhile anachronistic and apart from current reality, given that many of those words are (apparently) no longer in current use, being salvaged by Harvey from the pages of William Barnes' 1863 Grammar and Glossary of the Dorset Dialect. Readers not from that part of the world are aided by numerous footnotes and a glossary, and for the fainter-hearted, all of the poems are given in plainer English too. All this apparatus can at times seem like overkill, but an excess of hand-holding is probably better than too little.

It’s a highly idiosyncratic book with no few weaknesses, but overall I found it a bold and a compelling work. An odd surprise for me was that I recognized a couple of the ostensibly obscure dialect words therein having previously heard them via another source. My late wife hailed from Newfoundland, which has a rich dialect of its own. On occasion she’d use the dialect word bivver as an emphatic variant of shiver (i.e. with cold); Harvey uses biver, which is explained in her glossary as “to shake or quiver with cold or fear”. And sometimes when brushing her hair, if it were badly tangled, my wife might complain of it being clitty. Harvey uses clitty a few times, glossing it as “stringy and sticky, tangled in clods or lumps”. Perhaps it’s no coincidence then that a relative of my wife’s, on tracing their shared ancestry, found a number of forebears who’d moved to St. John’s from the Poole area of southeastern Dorset.