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.
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.’
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.