Bite-size Books: Ormeshadow

Book cover: Ormeshadow - Prita SharmaThe Belmans have farmed in Ormeshadow for generations. Returning home after a failed attempt to build a life elsewhere, John Belman binds his son Gideon to the land with ancient legends – and enduring hope.

Reading the blurb for Ormeshadow, you could be forgiven for wondering why this is being positioned as a fantasy novella. Although it has a family legend about a sleeping dragon at its heart, it mostly sounds like a straight-up historical tale of a dysfunctional family. Having read Ormeshadow, I can confirm it is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

While those who come in search of out-and-out fantasy may be disappointed; those who like a bit of depressing rural period drama with the teensiest slice of magical realism may find more to like. I grew up on depressing rural period drama (Jude the Obscure was my favourite Hardy), so I went into Ormeshadow open-minded – if hopeful for a bit of dragon action before the end.

It begins with an argument about whether John is right to distract his son with tales of sleeping dragons or whether young Gideon should be exposed to the harsh realities of life. John is a gentle man, given to turning the other cheek and avoiding conflict; he is raising his son to be clever and curious, if naïve. His wife Clare is beautiful and bitter, disappointed by John’s tolerance and reluctant to retire from life on the edges of Bath’s glittering society.

Their relationship would be turbulent if it weren’t for John’s dedicated calm. All the wild passions of the Belmans reside in in his cruel brother Thomas, who makes them as welcome as a wet winter at Ormesleep Farm. But John owns half the farm and half the Orme: Thomas must bite back his resentment and limit himself to vicious provocations and snide comments.

For a while, the family make the difficult situation work. John encourages Gideon and his nephews academically (much to his brother’s disgust); Clare attempts to befriend her sister-in-law Maud (only for Thomas to verbally cut her down); while Gideon makes the best of it, learning to love the Orme itself through John’s fanciful stories of the sleeping dragon and her fabled treasure beneath their feet. But this is a tale of claustrophobic simmering and tragic choices. It can’t end well.

At its best, Ormeshadow nods to the likes of Thomas Hardy and Emily Brontë (the sheep shearing scene was a personal favourite) or channels Poldark (loathe him or not, Thomas topless causes the pages to ripple). Unfortunately, it just didn’t work for me – on a purely stylistic note, I wasn’t a huge fan of Sharma’s spare prose and short sentences, but I also found key plot developments too telegraphed to be satisfying.

In spite of this, I think I could have enjoyed the terrible love/hate relationships if there had been room for a little more nuance in the characters who are sketched out brilliantly, but fail to develop or surprise. Consequently, Thomas seems more and more a pantomime villain rather than a three-dimensional character in the final act, and Maud never gains a dimension at all. Clare never blossoms, the intriguing notes replaced by attention-seeking and self-interest.

It’s a little too easy to despise everyone (except poor Eliza Dorcas: which brings me to another point of discomfort – the relentless besmirching of the female characters). Gideon was so hapless throughout it was easy to pity him, but hard to root for him; regrettably, I found him the least interesting person in the story.

The largely unpleasant cast ought to have made the climax easier to swallow, but I was disappointed by the ending. It’s likely to divide readers between those who choose to read it literally and those who read it as metaphor: either way I felt the outcome was unearned, an inevitable ending rather than a deserved one.

Perhaps this just wasn’t the story I wanted to read. I can objectively see reasons another reader may enjoy it – but it left me wanting to either pick up some Hardy to properly wallow in rural desolation of the heart or to read something unequivocally about dragons.