Courageous and earnest, funny and irreverent
TIRZAH AND THE PRINCE OF CROWS DEBORAH KAY DAVIES One World, 400pp, £14.99
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