ARTICLE – Review (October 2018)

‘Captivating Gothic-influenced tale in a 1970s setting’

Tirzah and the Prince of Crows by Deborah Kay Davies

Reviewed by JON GOWER

WHEN Wales-based author Deborah Kay Davies (pictured below) started writing her latest book she was pretty convinced she was embarking on a Welsh Gothic novel. 

It certainly has all the right ingredients – simmering sexuality, a repressive and staunch religious sect and a feral boy running loose in the woods. 

But the tome is less dark than she imagined, perhaps because of the defiant spirit of its teenage protagonist Tirzah and her seemingly unquenchable optimism in the face of life’s travails and tests.

Set in the 1970s, in an area one imagines as being not dissimilar to the valleys linking the old community of Pontypool with the new town of Cwmbran this is Tirzah’s tale. 

Rebellious

She is a bright student at school who has to contend with the rigid strictures of her parents’ church.  There’s a boy who loves her called Osian but her rebellious streak directs her towards Brân, the Prince of Crows, who “smells strange, both musky and blackcurrant sharp,” lives in a wigwam and gets her with child. 

The dark repercussions are prefigured in the judiciously selected Biblical epigrams at the start of each chapter such as “Thy Elders and Thy Judges Shall Come Forth” from the book of Deuteronomy or Isaiah’s “Uncovered, Yea, Thy Shame Shall be Seen.” 

This is a more conventional book than Davies’ Reasons She Goes to the Woods, published in 2014, which again told the story of a young girl, Pearl, but did so in a series of terse, poetic vignettes but yet the language cuts loose, with nature described in almost hallucinatory prose, in keeping witn Tirzah’s ability to leave her body behind:

‘The graveyard sweeps downhill, the shale path glowing in the dark like the Path to Glory.  Amongst the headstones, yew trees mass in black clouds, their secret, slow-beating hearts crouched deep inside.  She imagines unloosing from her own body again and fluttering up through the top of her own head like a newly born moth. Leaving behind the stuffy, holy room, the dust-rough curtains and threadbare carpet, she can feel the weight of the moisture-laden air on her millions of wing scales.’

Captivating

Davies isn’t a fan of magical realism yet there is a strain of magic and transformation running through Tirzah’s world.  She can move through the Sunday streets without touching the pavement, or be “aware of the benign nothingness in every blade of grass and every squat, embattled tree around her.” 

She is a captivating creation, full of zest and energy and this reader found himself very much on her side, wanting the best for her.  Luckily her parents finally come through for her, even at the expense of antagonising the congregation of the church. It is not a book with an entirely happy ending though, as the crows will come for the unfortunate Brân. 

Tirzah and the Prince of Crows is a book brimming with linguistic exuberance and powered along by the engine of a young girl’s vivid and vital inner life.  It confirms, once again Davies’ ready gift for telling a tale and telling it with a rare gusto and ability to enthrall.

Tirzah and the Prince of Crows by Deborah Kay Davies is published by Oneworld in hardback, price £14.99.

Reviewer JON GOWER is an award-winning Wales-based writer and broadcaster.

Photo: Emyr Jenkins

Tirzah and the Prince of Crows – Exclusive Horla Extract 

GRADUALLY, she can make out flashes of sharp little scenes, but before she can understand what they mean, mist covers them again. Concentrate, Tirzah, she tells herself, knocking her temple with a fist. Suddenly, Brân’s feathered headdress and painted face looms out at her. It’s to do with Brân, she thinks. I bet all this has to do with him. Then, as if this thought has tripped a switch, she begins to recall what happened from the moment she saw Brân across the stream.

          Brân had beckoned her to come to him, and she’d jumped across the brook, weightless as one airy filament of a dandelion clock. Next she was outside his wooden den, and he was pointing to the crows perched like sharp-eyed guards high up in the trees. The rasping sound of his voice calling them fills her quiet bedroom. She can almost smell the smoky fire and broken ferns. Brân’s cry is a sound so full of something beyond any noise she has heard in the village that she cannot grasp its real meaning, but there, in those woods, the crows understood and swooped down to settle nearer, cawing an answer. Brân paced the beaten earth, raising and lowering his arms, lifting his voice to the coppery sky while the crows croaked.

          Tirzah had trouble filling her lungs and emptying them; it was all so sad and strange. Brân! she called, and her voice sounded sharp enough to rip a hole in the leafy world around them. Brân, I’ve been searching everywhere for you this past week. He turned, and looked surprised to see her again. Brân, she repeated, and went close to him, shaking his naked arm. Don’t you know me? He made a quieting movement with his dirty hand and then raised it to point again, this time to the apex of his wigwam. Tirzah looked and saw a bold bird, dark as a sloe berry, its wings outspread like ink-dipped, tattered banners. He is my prince now, Brân said, eyes hectic with excitement. In their shifting grey depths Tirzah could see herself and Brân, and nothing else.

Then she was inside the wooden hut. Ferns were deep and damp on the floor, and old feathers filled the gaps between the branches. He is an old devil, really, Brân told her. He’s the boyo who rules the wood and the valley and the country hereabouts. This place is even named after him. He squints at her, head to one side. I have been given this knowledge. But you can only know these things if you have eyes to see, he whispered, scaring her. Tirzah squatted and filled her lungs with the smell of everything. No, Brân, a bird can’t be a king, she’d said, unsure if this was true. How can you believe that? And no one should worship the devil, like you said you were. She felt desperate to make herself clear. He can’t love you, Brân, she’d said. He is the Great Deceiver. Satan wants your downfall, and that’s the truth. But Brân was not listening. I have fallen, he stated calmly. And I don’t want to get back up. But anyway, out by here there are as many gods as you want. You just have to pick one for yourself.

          As he talked, Brân was fiddling with something in his lap. Tirzah shuffled nearer and saw a creature, maybe a vole, struggling in his hands. Please let it go, Brân, she said, her voice wobbling. But Brân had snapped the squeaking thing’s neck. She crawled outside after him and watched as he lifted the animal up to the dark bird on the roof, then threw it down. Tirzah heard a feathered rush and saw the bird plunge, grab the vole in its scaly claws and, labouring to gain height, slowly disappear. Now everything will be fine and dandy tonight, Brân said. It’ll be tidy, just you see. Tirzah looked at the trees standing in patient ranks around her and the bulky canopy above. The sky was a dusky violet streaked with crimson and, higher up, all pricked over with silver pinpoints. I have to go, she’d said. My mam and dad will be worried. But already it was too dark, and Brân was back inside his hut, feeding the fire.