Coura­geous and earnest, funny and ir­rev­er­ent

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS REVIEWS - ALAN MUR­RIN


Tirzah is a teenage girl grow­ing up in the Welsh val­leys in the 1970s. Her fam­ily are mem­bers of “the fel­low­ship”, a com­mu­nity of God-fear­ing Chris­tians. Tirzah has doubts about the re­li­gious in­struc­tion she re­ceives. She es­capes the sti­fling at­mos­phere of church by trav­el­ling in her mind’s eye to the woods and val­leys that sur­round her. She is a cu­ri­ous mix­ture of earthy and in­no­cent, puerile and pi­ous. She won­ders what lurks in­side the pas­tor’s trousers and if she will be damned to hell for such a thought. Her home life is equally con­flict­ing. Her fa­ther cuts down the plants in their gar­den, be­liev­ing flow­ers to be “fleshy” and “in­dul­gent”. His sever­ity is bal­anced by her mother’s kind­ness.

When her friend Osian kisses her it un­locks a de­sire in Tirzah that he alone can­not sat­isfy. She learns that her sex­u­al­ity has power and cur­rency, but also that she has choices. She courts Osian for her own grat­i­fi­ca­tion. Her fam­ily takes in strays and when a fac­tory worker comes to live with them she con­sid­ers of­fer­ing him sex­ual favours in re­turn for money. Tirzah dis­cov­ers a pen­chant for waifs. The boy she truly de­sires is Brán. Vir­ile and feral, he is a lost soul who shares her affin­ity for na­ture.

This is Deb­o­rah Kay Davies’s third novel and fol­lows Rea­sons She Goes to the Woods, longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fic­tion in 2014. That ti­tle would have been equally fit­ting for her lat­est book. Tirzah makes many jour­neys to the woods, both men­tally and phys­i­cally. It is a dark and sen­sual desti­na­tion where she finds peace but where she also falls prey to sin. Much of the book is given over to lyri­cal de­scrip­tions of the land­scape and Davies writes about na­ture in a way that is lush and im­mer­sive. This is a place where, “ex­hausted leaves droop like sleep­ing bats on the branches”. She is equally skilled at us­ing sharp, sen­sory de­tail. The world is metic­u­lously built and noth­ing feels su­per­flu­ous. We are car­ried along by Davies’s tremen­dous sense of rhythm, with each sen­tence feel­ing like it grows or­gan­i­cally from the last.


The book draws on Welsh mythol­ogy and there are el­e­ments of fan­tasy too. The jour­neys Tirzah makes in her mind have the qual­ity of re­li­gious vi­sions. She is a kind of Joan of Arc of the val­leys. The ti­tle chap­ters are lines of New Tes­ta­ment scrip­ture but the de­ity de­picted is Old Tes­ta­ment. Tirzah is as much aligned with the devil and pa­gan­ism as she is with this God of fire and brim­stone. She has dreams of crows swoop­ing down from the sky, of snakes butting at the gus­set of her un­der­wear. There are few ref­er­ences to an­chor us in time leav­ing the sense that this could be hap­pen­ing cen­turies, rather than decades ago. The ti­tle alone would wrong-foot any reader into think­ing they were about to step into an ac­tion-packed world of sword and sor­cery. In fact very lit­tle hap­pens.

Mid­way through the story Tirzah falls preg­nant, and the re­main­der of the book deals with how she and her fam­ily cope with the shame. They are os­tracised. There is a schism in the fel­low­ship. Tirza con­ceals the iden­tity of the baby’s fa­ther. Th­ese are all po­ten­tially dra­matic plot points but there is a pe­cu­liar lack of ten­sion. At the news of their daugh­ter’s preg­nancy, her hith­erto fa­nat­i­cal par­ents be­come lov­ing and per­mis­sive. We are so tightly fas­tened to Tirzah’s per­spec­tive that when her preg­nancy forces her ab­sence we are of­fered no other van­tage point. She does not bear wit­ness to the scan­dal she has caused and sto­ries of the fights that take place among the con­gre­ga­tion are de­liv­ered to the reader se­cond-hand. What we are left with are sen­ti­men­tal scenes of a fam­ily grow­ing to­ward love as Tirzah’s preg­nancy pro­gresses.

Thank­fully, Tirzah is good com­pany for the reader. She is coura­geous, earnest, funny and ir­rev­er­ent. This does not make up for the nar­ra­tive lag that in­hibits the book’s se­cond half and makes the vi­o­lent gothic end­ing feel all the more abrupt.

Deb­o­rah Kay Davies: sharp, sen­sory de­tail and a tremen­dous sense of rhythm

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