Ormeshadow, by Priya Sharma
I know I have recommended this book previously, but with it winning not only the 2019 Shirley Jackson Novella Award, but most recently the British Fantasy Award for Best Novella just a few days ago, I wanted to highlight it again. It truly is that good.
When Gideon is ten years old, he and his parents are forced to leave their home in Bath to take up residence at the Belman family farmstead near the rural town of Ormeshadow. Sheep farming is quite different from learning Latin, and the tension between Gideon’s parents and his enigmatic Uncle Thomas keeps Gideon constantly unbalanced.
But Gideon’s father grew up in Orme, and regales the boy with childhood stories and local folklore. Orme, Gideon’s father tells him, is the old English word for dragon, and according to legend, Ormeshadow was built on the back of a dragon who had been sleeping for so long that grass grew over her, for so long that people forgot she was there. The village was built in her shadow, and still she sleeps on.
Yet all too human secrets abound at the Belman farmstead, and as they boil over, Gideon’s already tenuous world is thrown into turmoil. When those he loves irrevocably fail him, the only thing he has to turn to is the myth of a slumbering beast whose rumored permanence feels like the only thing in his life that is real.
This coming of age story, written by Priya Sharma (known mainly for her short stories, including 2018’s award winning All the Fabulous Beasts) is a beautiful and haunting work, masterfully blending both stark reality and wishful fantasy. Reading it, I was indelibly transported into a world completely unlike my own, and yet wholly authentic.
In Gideon, Sharma is able to give us a voice that is tender, yet has the resilience of youth. He is constantly stymied, and yet is still able to find beauty in his grim surroundings. He knows his father is troubled, yet still their relationship is precious and close; their time wandering the Orme, and the stories he hears from his father give his unsettled life purchase.
Sharma’s description of Orme, both the settled, mundane land and the lore buried beneath it, is unfeigned and tangible. The fantasy element of this novella is slight, but potent, wreathed in legend and innocence and made so much more powerful in its simplicity. It slumbers, and yet the story is built upon it, like the Orme herself.
I absolutely adored Ormeshadow, so much so that I have sought out Priya Sharma, and intend on delving into the rest of her work. I recommend a lot of books over the year, but this one stands above others in the beauty of its writing, and its simple but powerful telling.