Review: Encounters With Everyday Madness by Charlie Hill

Summer Kendrick reviews Encounters with Everyday Madness by Charlie Hill

Charlie Hill’s Encounters with Everyday Madness (Roman Books, 2023) isn’t just an exploration of modern madness, it tilts the concept completely, leaving the reader to decide: what is normal, anyway?

From the author of The State of Us (Fly on the Wall Press, 2023), Books (Profile Books, 2013) and The Pirate Queen (Stairwell Books, 2022), Charlie Hill’s latest book, Encounters with Everyday Madness, follows suit with a bold and rather wry collection of short stories.

Aptly named, each story chronicles a brush, and sometimes a crash, with the uncomfortable truth of the inner mind. The word ‘madness’ covers all manner of states – whether it’s the crushing weight of anxiety, the manic conversation of a presumed junkie or the eeriness of going for a walk through an isolated forest. Hill presents each story like a case study, but refuses to make judgement on who or what is crazy. In fact, the reader begins to believe that craziness is an inevitable condition of being human.

Hill plays with form throughout the book, to great effect. Some stories are epistolic, others are poems, reports or trailing snags of small talk on the School Run. The use of experimental form compliments the overall theme and objectives of the collection, reminding us that rules and reality are flexible conditions.

A Walk by the River, the opening story, was particularly strong. Second person is notoriously hard to master, and while the internal dialogue was jarring, the POV lended powerful interplay between nature and the mind.

Madness can often manifest in isolation and loneliness, which was the principal challenge throughout. With a few exceptions, Hill handled this with extraordinary care and humour. Some stories, such as Stuff, were prone to lengthy monologic exposition that diluted Hill’s otherwise punchy and wry writing style, but the clear voice in Love Story and Temping kept the pace up throughout the collection.

Hill establishes a very working class British tone of voice, consistent with his other works, through most stories. He uses the quotidian bore of waiting for a bus, making a frozen dinner or building Lego to create complex characters who challenge the concept of sanity. Encounters with Everyday Madness is an uncomfortably poignant and successful tribute to madness, in all its shapes and forms

Charie Hill. Encounters with Everyday Madness. London, Roman Books, 2023.


Summer kendrick is joinT editor OF MIR and A recent alumnus of the Birkbeck Creative Writing MA. She is currently writing a novel set in London and Australia.

Rabbit Hutch, Tess Gunty

Review: The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty

Natasha Carr-Harris reviews The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty

Tess Gunty’s widely acclaimed debut novel takes place in fictional Vacca
Vale, Indiana, an obscure town in the Rust Belt of America which we discover early on has topped Newsweek’s notorious list of “Top Ten Dying American Cities” (31). At the edge of town, a motley cast of characters fight to survive and aspire to thrive in separate units of a low-cost housing complex, a building named “La Lapinière”, or “The Rabbit Hutch”. Unfettered by the restraints of chronology, Gunty takes the reader on a polyphonic dance that offers both fleeting glimpses and cutting insights into the sad decline of a once bustling industrial centre and the characters who struggle haplessly against the oppressive systemic forces that disrupt and upset their lives.

There are grand, overarching themes which loom portentously over the unfolding personal narratives, omens of ecological doom and economic collapse and a depressing paucity of societal communion, all echoed by carefully detailed accounts of the city’s deterioration and stricken portraits of its unhappy denizens. What we learn about Vacca Vale’s decline throughout the novel seems to substantiate the current discourse on the predicament of America’s Rust Belt. The Vacca Vale river, which cuts through the city’s centre, is hopelessly polluted, countless businesses foreclosed, shops, buildings and houses abandoned, streets littered with trash, and we soon learn that the town’s only bit of untouched beauty, an expanse of park called Chastity Valley, is set to be transformed into a cluster of condominiums as part of a development plan.

Blandine, the eighteen year old star of the novel, opposes the development plan and stages an unnerving protest during a celebration dinner for its official launch. We witness her quietly agitated moments before the attack, poised on the precipice of dissidence, desperate to defend the Valley, embroiled in a strange, unsettling conversation with Joan, another resident of the Rabbit Hutch. The actual attack occurs off page, but I was far more interested in these preceding moments of inner turmoil as they set the stage for what we will come to learn and expect of Blandine: her fascination for mysticism, her uncompromising principles and ideals, and above all, her particular brand of profound loneliness.

Precocious yet troubled, Blandine strikes me as a conduit for important and necessary criticisms about the state of her hometown and the crises that permeate our reality at large. Freshly aged out of the foster system and unceremoniously thrust into adulthood, we find her cohabitating with three teenage boys who come from similarly unstable backgrounds, grappling with the trauma of having been betrayed by a mentor figure, a teacher from her old school. As much as her intelligence helps her escape her pain through her readings of the mystics, she is bereft of the resources to actually help herself, and her awareness of how much is beyond her control
contributes to a terrible anger.

Described as beautiful in an unassuming, ethereal way, Blandine is undoubtedly set apart from the other characters, but I found a great deal of her sentiments, beliefs, habits and thoughts to be intensely relatable and resonant. For instance, in a conversation with Jack, one of the boys she lives with, Blandine delivers a scathing diatribe on the exploitative perils of social media and its contribution to a cultural erosion that leaves room for little else than artificiality and incessant comparison. In response to Blandine’s deliberate abstinence from social media, Jack accuses her of snobbery, to which Blandine replies, “Not at all. On the contrary, I’m too weak for it” (177). For me, this attitude succinctly encapsulates an aggravating paradox about people who avoid social media and those who long to break free from it: that they are principally opposed to the proliferation of “hacking, politically nefarious robots, opinion echo chambers, [and] fearmongering,” yet equally as susceptible to its addictive algorithm (177). But as articulate as Blandine is when it comes to expressing her discontentment, she is helpless to effect any real change. She is as much a relatable nobody as a burgeoning mystic, all of which makes her role in the novel’s harrowing climax both tragic and poetically satisfying.

True to its polyphonic structure, the novel is stylistically experimental with a wide range of perspectives and voices which range from finessed prose with rhetoric, metaphors and sensory detail to the colloquial chatter of a teenage boy. There was one chapter I found quite striking in its unprecedented structure: in the aftermath of the novel’s climax, nineteen year old Jack relays the sequence of events that culminate in the story’s final, violent confrontation through a chapter composed solely of single-sentence paragraphs. Entirely devoid of effusion, the terse list of one-liners resembles a factual police report and I was left with a curious sense of emotional obstruction and an understanding that perhaps for Jack, the horror of what transpired necessitates a sort of removed detachment.

Here and there, the fragmented narrative dips delicately into surrealism, never departing too far from the banalities of real life. Many of the characters come from different walks of life and subsequently face a scattered array of hardships unique to their backgrounds, though they share humanising attributes. But before they are real, they are merely strange. One of the first things we learn about Moses Robert Blitz, for instance, is that he habitually stages nocturnal attacks by covering his nude body in glow-stick liquid and breaking into the houses of his enemies to frighten them. What could possibly motivate his bizarre behaviour emerges as puzzle pieces from a painful past that he cannot let go of; these pieces all point to a mother who hurt him deeply, and has recently skirted any possibility of resolution or reconciliation through death. Meanwhile, the mother in question, the Hollywood starlet Elsie Blitz, is as haunting and formidable in her living moments as she is in death. In a truly innovative auto-obituary, she offers a haphazard collection of life lessons, chastises her adult son for his nocturnal escapades, and outlines a startlingly vivid encounter with Death himself. Moses eventually arrives in Vacca Vale on one of his punitive missions, but he and Elsie are the only two characters whose lives actually take place outside of the town. And while they certainly embody what the dying town lacks—namely, wealth—it is equally as clear that they are not impervious to its smog of despair. The relationship between Moses and Elsie, which explores fundamental misunderstandings and limitations on both ends, was, for me, one of the novel’s most convincing portraitures of a dysfunctional relationship, and certainly my favourite. As Gunty pithily summarises: “In the end, there was a woman and a man. But the man was too much son and the woman was too little mother” (166).

I enjoy my fiction with a touch of surrealism, which exercises my imaginative faculties, but what I was not expecting to enjoy was how much the internet features throughout the story. We live in a virtual age, after all, though this is a fact that I am not always at peace with, so when a book succeeds in depicting the online world authentically, replete with internet vernacular, emojis, typos, and the kind of unsightly language borne behind the safety of anonymity, I find myself genuinely paying attention. One of the Rabbit Hutch tenants, Joan, ekes out a living screening obituary comments for “foul language, copyrighted material, and mean-spirited remarks about the deceased”, amongst other varieties of unruly internet conduct (34). In a chapter wholly comprised of obituary comments, Gunty relays a barrage of offensive material that Joan is forced to delete. At first glance, the comments seem nonsensical and random, as internet content so often is, but there is, in fact, much to glean from the remarks on what is ailing us all. One comment, in all caps, promotes a young hopeful’s new music album; another spouts political non-sequiturs; yet others spell out conspiracy theories, sexual propositions, requests for charity, and even existential provocations. In these pleas for attention and shouts into the void, I gathered a core truth about what Joan calls the “collective American subconscious”: that America may be lost, but Americans are fighting to find themselves.

I have included in my review those moments from the book that struck me most viscerally, that I can recall without effort and feel a great urge to discuss with others, but I have no doubt there is much I am forced to overlook—or have not yet discovered—and I would urge any reader to look for those moments of humour and insight. As much as it comments on the state of America, The Rabbit Hutch meditates equally on modernity, and people, such that while my reader’s greed longs for more, I have to defer to the novel’s unresolved ending, which mimics what we know of the questionable nature of life.

Gunty, Tess. The Rabbit Hutch. London, Oneworld Publications, 2022. Print.

Natasha Carr-Harris is an editor and features writer for MIR and recent alumnus of the Birkbeck Creative Writing MA.
Singapre Skyline

Review: Singapore by Eva Aldea

Katy Severson reviews Singapore, by Eva Aldea, published by Holland House Books.

Singapore - Eva Aldea

In Eva Aldea’s debut novel, Singapore is hot and humid, tense, sterile and slow. There are snakes and crabs, expat housewives with Filipina maids. At the centre of this, there is an unnamed female protagonist who vehemently resents her life abroad. She hates the humid heat, struggles to relate to the fellow expats in her circle, and finds solace, it seems, through violent fantasies of murdering the people around her.

At its core, ‘Singapore’ is an account of a woman trapped by her life as a housewife in a foreign country, and an exploration of the beastly depths of the human brain when left alone to stew. It’s also about the complicated socio-political landscape and dripping heat of Singapore itself. In the background of the protagonist’s personal story is an exploration of class tensions, privilege and colonialism. She is almost painfully aware of her privilege, and she both resents the class system in Singapore and enjoys the benefits it offers her. Singapore, a nation where ‘not all cultures are treated equal all the time’, is called into question—and we’re left meditating on the ethics of capitalism and the impact of British colonialism.

            The writing itself is precisely detailed and cinematic, like a calculated screenplay in which every moment or object feels intentional and significant to the story. We see our protagonist taking coffee beans from the freezer, removing a clothes pin, replacing it. We watch her navigate the packaged rice aisle in a supermarket, picking up each variety and putting it back on the shelf. She moves something from a desk to another desk to the kitchen counter; she adjusts the temperature of the fridge. And we find ourselves wondering where these moments might lead, constantly kept on our toes. These details also have a way of stretching time and rendering an eerie, creeping slowness to the text that’s punctuated by consistent references to violence and death.

            There are venomous snakes and fighting fish. There is the chopping and grinding of coffee beans, the slicing of liver and lungs. Our protagonist sees ‘corpses’ at a yoga class and realises that she likes chopping meat and scooping aubergine flesh, ‘fascinated by these things that once were alive’, interested in ‘the thrill of the hunt’—until it turns into elaborate fantasies of murder. At points, the descriptions are so detailed and elaborate that it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s projected. Has she actually murdered the maid? Is she actually keeping a body in the boot of her car? Or are her fantasies simply that calculated, a deeply analysis of what she’d have to do in each instance to get away with it? I’m not convinced we’re meant to know. The book becomes a blurred reality and a manifestation of her manic thoughts.

There are times when the details feel over-explained, the scenes so mundane and so slow that it risks boring the reader. But that, I think, is the sheer brilliance of the writing. Aldea forces us to endure the boredom of her protagonist and the brutality of her thoughts as if we’re right there with her. These mundane details invite us into the confines of the protagonist’s brain in ways few fiction texts do. We see her question whether she should kill herself, watch her spill hot water on herself just for the drama of going to the doctor. And the result, somehow, is a likeable character: someone painfully self-aware and tortured by her day-to-day and someone worth rooting for, even despite her murderous fantasies. The reader is so intimately intertwined with the text that we can feel the muggy heat, the long and languid days spent alone, and we feel trapped right there with her. In a way, I too went mad as I read it.  

This is a book is for anyone curious about exploring the absurdities of the human brain and the animalistic tendencies that exist within us all. It allows a rare look inside a character’s intrusive thoughts—the kinds of thoughts that few authors are bold enough to put on the page. In an article on Books By Women, Aldea credits ‘discomfort and boredom’ as the driving force behind her writing, recalling her own experience living abroad in Singapore and the complicated feelings that arose from it. I like the idea that this novel serves as a means of exploring the depths of one’s brain in ways we often don’t let ourselves. One’s anger and frustration taken to extremes. One’s beastly nature on full, unabashed display.

Katy Severson is a writer and chef based in London. Her work has appeared in Huffington Post, Cherry Bombe, Bon Appetit, Fifty Grande and others with a focus on social and environmental justice issues in food. She completed her MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck University in 2023.


Illustrated Woman, Helen Mort

What the wounded heart attempts – review: The Illustrated Woman, by Helen Mort

Craig Smith reviews The Illustrated Woman, by Helen Mort, published by Penguin.
The Illustrated Woman, Helen Mort
The Illustrated Woman - Helen Mort

The Illustrated Woman is the latest collection of poems by Helen Mort, published by Penguin. It is a study of the human form and human agency, predominantly the agency women have for their own lives and bodies, and what happens when that agency is denied them.

I’ll state up front: I love Helen Mort’s poetry. Her writing is taut, lyrical, kind, brave, intelligent, beautiful. She is a writer totally in control of the words on the page. The Illustrated Woman is Mort at her angriest, most righteous, most affronted. It also finds her at her most tender, open, positive, joyful. For example, in the opening poem, ‘Failsafe’:

      Lean towards me
      so September’s a tipped flame,
      your body’s a struck match,

      let all this catch
      and take, sip lager
      from the day’s unsteady glass

But for the reference to lager, this could be a lyric from Cole Porter. The sounds sit together nicely: the rhymes/half rhymes of match, catch and glass; the alliteration of lean, let, lager, flame, glass; the images clear and enjoyable. These are satisfying poems.

When she is angry, Mort’s writing has a dignity that makes her argument persuasive and vital. At her most gentle, her language is strong, muscular, and no word is wasted. Every phrase is taut, like it’s relaxing after a trip down the gym. It would be a fruitless exercise to ask a workshop to strip out the extraneous language from Mort’s poems. It’s as if, when she was a kid, she was told she couldn’t go out until she’d removed every stray adjective, errant sentence construction, dubious syntax from her work, and the message stuck with her. Or more likely, she took her poems to a workshop and they were ripped apart, and vowed not to leave herself open to that humiliation again. Her poems demonstrate not just innate ability, but hard work, the craft of the edit, the refusal to give up until every burr has been rounded off. We, the readers, benefit from this. Here’s an example, from ‘Bearings’:

      Now, south is a lie
      always in my wrist,
      palm and fingertips.
      My clavicle and heart
      must pass for north.

Mort operates predominantly from within a square bounded by Chesterfield (where she grew up), Sheffield, and the Pennines to the west of both. Her poetry is unarguably northern poetry. There is a qualitative difference between writing from the North of England and elsewhere. I don’t mean better or worse, just different. These are poems set to a backdrop of former heavy industries, of transport systems on the point of collapse, of nature and the town side by side, battling it out. She takes to the hills and lakes for peace, for exercise, for perspective, for transcendence. Most of her writing has nature as a backdrop, either explicitly or at the back of her mind:

      makes the woods a mystery
      of dog-scent, winter mulch.

      Pre-dawn, when Sharrow Vale
      and Psalter Lane lie down to weep
      (‘Rain in a Head torch’)

In ‘Love Poem’:

      It’s bee orchids and cuckoo spit, sunk, swollen mattresses,
      a girl’s reflection by the lock, the ghosts of narrow boats,
      the lost dog who lives like a fox, split ear and puddled eyes,
      roaming the undergrowth, finding the copse where a man
      sleeps rough in his orange survival bag.

Though she is utterly her own poet, the writer she most reminds me of in her use of language is Seamus Heaney. They both strip nature and humanity to its essentials:

      the diagonals of her crutches,
      shell-scoops of her breasts,
      the folded cloth of her back
      and the jut of her new hip.
      (‘Dear Body’)

The Illustrated Woman is divided into three sections: ‘skin’; ‘skinless’; ‘-skinned’. ‘skin’ is Mort’s study of her family, her body, of the open air, and the skin she wears: background, backdrop, and her body as her own personal foreground. ‘skinless’ is about motherhood, namely the journey through child-bearing and the young life of her son. ‘-skinned’ contains an assortment of poems, including the multi-part poem, ‘Deepfake: a pornographic ekphrastic’, which I’ll get to in a minute, as it needs to be discussed on its own.

Within ‘skin’ sits the mini-collection, ‘The Illustrated Woman’ (from which the book gets its name). This is an array of short poems that looks at the history, culture and art of the tattoo. In ‘Lou’, she writes:

      … we have chosen to surface
      what’s inside and wear it brightly.

In other words, it’s my body, and I want it to look like this. ‘Creation Myth with Rotary Machine’ is about her own experience beneath the needle:

      & the streams did what skin does
      as it heals
      or what the wounded heart attempts
      and she had to pause
      to soften them.

‘Dime show’ is Mort’s multi-part poem about famous/infamous tattooed women of American burlesque, before tattoos were prevalent as a work of art or statement of empowerment. Most of the women she describes were put-upon and, in the telling of the poem, are shown as victims of a bully, (‘Nora Hildebrandt’). Others were forced to be tattooed, but then owned it, and used the ink beneath their skin as a mark of their independence, (‘Irene Woodward’). Others found refuge in places where the tattoo was a sign of belonging (‘Olive Oatman’), and it was only when they were removed from those settings that they were seen as strange or challenging.

A theme through The Illustrated Woman is the inherited traits that bind or curse, the hand-me-downs which are not always welcome, such as health issues. In ‘Precious’, she writes:

      She has taken
      good care of this pain so that one day I will

      inherit it, slip it on at night and wear it forever,
      gleaming and slim.

These are poems that I am sure were tough to write, because they are tough to read, but they speak to poetry’s ability to prepare us for what faces us.

The hardest poem to talk about purely as poetry, is ‘Deep fake, a pornographic ekphrastic’. This was Mort’s response to a vile, misogynistic, cowardly act that she handled with dignity and bravery. The poem is, among other actions, Mort’s chosen route to take back control.

      Here I’m grinning from a frame of blue, Ibizan sky.
      Here is a woman with two men between her thighs.
      Here I’m on holiday, freckled and sun flecked.
      Here is a man with his hands around my neck.
      Here I’m pregnant with my son.
      Here is a body overrun.

The poem is full of lines of distilled fury: ‘This is language reduced to words.’ ‘This is me using you hard in a poem/where I decide what’s shown.’ ‘the sound of history forgetting you.’ I could quote the whole poem, and you should read it, even if you don’t read the whole collection. (But really, buy the whole collection!) ‘Deep fake…’ demonstrates the value of poetry to document the emotional devastation behind crimes to the person, and how art maybe cannot heal, as such, but it can start the process, and is vital in its capacity to call out wrong.

The Illustrated Woman is a rich collection of strong, skilful poems that demonstrate bravery and tenderness in equal measure. These are poems to be returned to again and again, with something new showing itself with every reading. I recommend it, heartily.

The Fish - Joanna Stubbs

The Fish, by Joanna Stubbs – Review

Joe Platt reviews The Fish, by Joanna Stubbs, published by Fairlight Books
The Fish - Joanne Stubbs
The Fish - Joanne Stubbs

‘It’s a fish.’ Cathy finds a fish living in her rice paddy in Cornwall, which leads to the question: what would happen if fish invaded the land due to the effects of climate change? This is the first fish-on-land incident in a chain of events which author, Stubbs, terms a ‘big existential event’.

This is climate fiction – the ascendent fiction genre. Climate fiction focuses on the effects of climate change on characters and societies, and uses the themes of speculative science-fiction to address the economic, political and social issues of the day.

But The Fish does not search for the reasons behind this fishy invasion. Instead, it focuses on the everyday tribulations of its three main characters in the context of this ‘big existential event’: a young man coming to terms with the possibilities of his future as he comes up to university age in New Zealand (Ricky); a woman questioning her faith and place in the world in Kuala Lumpur (Margaret); and Cathy, who feels the strain of distance from her partner, molecular biologist Ephie, who works away from home due to the fish.

As the plot progresses, these everyday tribulations are amplified by encounters with fish and other once-sea-creatures. Cathy argues with Ephie on the way back from seeing family. The conversation, as with those that follow, is full of interesting turns of phrase and light humour, but is punctuated by the sight of a beach covered in bright, orange starfish. Ricky and his friend Kyle get drunk; we discover that both characters are affected by their parental relationships. The session is interrupted by the sighting of thousands of fish escaping from a shipwrecked boat’s nets onto the land. Meanwhile, Margaret visits the red-light district in KL to pass on her religious teachings to those she believes need it. We see how her faith is being tested. The scene is ended by the necessity to wade through water to return to her Church.

The story continues in this vein. The severity of the characters’ personal issues increases in proportion to the effect of the fish on society. It is the characters’ responses to these trends, however – particularly those of Margaret and Cathy – which demonstrate the difficulty of dealing with everyday problems in the face of big existential events. Though the germ of the idea for The Fish was formed in 2016, it brings to mind the 2020 pandemic.

The reader is left wondering where the central plots of the novel are going, what the personal trials are leading to, whether the fish have any direct effect on the characters’ big decisions, and even why Stubbs has chosen these three characters to follow during the invasions.

Climate fiction is the next big thing out of necessity. If art’s purpose is to reflect society in a way that only a given form can, then society’s biggest concerns must be a big part of the output of that form. This makes speculative fiction a fertile ground for exploration. However, perhaps an opportunity has been missed here to explore the reasons behind the invasion and its potential effect. Climate change is mentioned in a superficial way. We never discover why the threat has arisen, nor is it suggested what the characters or society can do to counter it.

Instead, we are left with what feel like random developments in the characters’ lives, and none of the stories feel complete. Even Ricky, who is perhaps most affected by the fish for the better – he is inspired by the negative public reaction to the fish to go to university – doesn’t show urgency to change his behaviour in light of developments. Meanwhile, Cathy and Margaret are disgusted by the fish, and let their revulsion negatively affect their lives. Margaret is deeply fearful even before the negative effects of the invasion are discussed. At times, her view echoes broader, conservative opinion.

If Stubbs set out explore how humans have the capacity to worry about ‘big existential events’ when they also face everyday problems, she has succeeded. Perhaps the conclusion is that in the most part, humans tend to care only about what affects them directly. This is a sad conclusion, but one we should fight, given that it can only lead to societal failure.

Joe Platt is working towards an MA in creative writing at Birkbeck, where he is a staff copy editor on MIR Online.
PJ Harvey. Photograph: Steve Gullick

PJ Harvey Reads Orlam at Conway Hall

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 by which she can make sense of an increasingly confusing and frightening world.

Orlam is an exploration of Dorset myth, woven into the changing of the seasons. There are two worlds in Orlam – The first is the real world (farm), the second world is made of dreams and visions (the woods). We meet Ira, the child, and less frequently but still present, Ira the adult, looking back.

Harvey takes to the mic and explains that she will read a few poems from each month. Opening with ‘UNDERWHELEM’, from the January section, we are introduced to characters, places and language, all unfamiliar but instantly alluring. Of the selection read, twelve poems are set to an ethereal underscore, composed by Harvey. The music gives the already visceral words, new life. When Harvey later breaks, to discuss the creation of Ira and her world, the drive to give this work a life of its own, becomes apparent. There is a vast difference between writing lyrics and writing poems, Harvey suggests. When writing lyrics, music does half of the work for you; happy or sad, it builds the world around the words. With poetry, the information is there on the page with little assistance. It is in the reading. The reading breathes the life and emotion into the work. Whether you are fortunate enough to hear a poet read their work, or whether the aforementioned life is the meaning and significance you take from a piece of writing – it is all in the reading.

As she reads, Harvey barely glances down at the text, reciting almost all of the poems from memory. She inhabits the farm, then the woods, building the world for the audience as she goes. Illustrations found within the book, drawn by Harvey, are projected behind her as she reads. The poems, the underscore, the line drawings – these elements combined, create an immersive experience that takes hold. The poems take us through the seasons with ease, leading us to ‘Prayer at the Gate’, dated 1st January. The last poem of the collection is where the reading ends, a year in the life of Ira.

Orlam, by PJ Harvey

Orlam is written in Dorset dialect and Harvey reads it this way. Each poem has an English translation on the right page, but the attention to detail does not stop there. There is a translation for every poem, but the fainter the writing, the less need for the translation there is. If, like me, you are unfamiliar with the Dorset dialect, the challenge is to read and decipher what the poem is about, without cheating and looking at the English translation first, as this takes some of the otherworldly magic away. There is a clear and serious commitment in this work. The book is steeped in local, historical and mythical knowledge. The eight years of research, practice, workshops, courses and mentorships are evident. William Barnes’ Dorset dialect glossary spans fourteen pages at the end of Orlam, which allows you to grasp a better understanding of the words – and pick up a few – before a second read, if you’re so inclined. Harvey notes that when writing, it was as if half of these words were already in her system, like revisiting elements of childhood, lost but not gone. This parallel set of words already within her heritage, was within her. It didn’t feel like learning, it felt like remembering.

Childhood is where Orlam takes us. An intricate character list introduces nine-year-old Ira among many others including, her guardian and protector, an all-seeing lamb’s eyeball named Orlam. Along with the cast of enchanting characters, footnotes line the pages with wild descriptions of the minutiae which are playful and charming.

‘Hair was never to be carelessly thrown away, because if it was used for lining a magpie’s nest you would be dead within a year.’ – from ‘Cutting with Kane’.

Footnotes such as these leave you unsure whether they are complete fiction, created by Harvey for the book, or whether the origins go deeper. I suspect a bit of both. Either way, the footnotes do a great job of keeping the belief in folklore and the unseen alive.

The world of Orlam is shown from a child’s viewpoint, allowing a sense of wonder and a sense of truth to shine. That sense of wonder is unlocked during the reading, the audience are captivated, there is absolute silence except that of PJ Harvey’s voice accompanied by her enchanting underscore. The atmosphere is electric as each new poem begins. Harvey notes that as a creative, the dream world and the imagination are never very far away. Those places are where the work is drawn from. Adults often close that side of themselves down, or unfortunately have it closed them for them, but that wonder, that magic is still there, just waiting to be set free.

Photo (of PJ Harvey) by Steve Gullick.

Orlam is published by Picador Poetry.

Twitter: @amy_ridler