Tirzah and the Prince of Crows by Deborah Kay Davies: She is my delight

Cover imageI wasn’t entirely sure I would read Deborah Kay Davies’ second novel. The press release suggested that she’s often been compared with Angela Carter which set loud alarm bells ringing but I rarely read Welsh fiction, and its published by OneWorld who can generally be relied upon to deliver the goods. Set in the 1970s, it’s about the eponymous Tizrah, sixteen years old and beginning to question the strictures of the sect to which her parents belong.

Tirzah rarely leaves the village in the valley where she was born. Her parents are members of a non-conformist Christian denomination whose draconian rules are obeyed by some to the letter and by others with a little more generosity and compassion. Tizrah’s father is in the former camp, his roaring tirades tempered by her mother who counsels discretion and patience. Her best friends are her cousin Biddy and Osian, for whom Tizrah has puzzling little glimmers of desire which are more than returned. When Osian’s father catches these two alone together, a flame of righteous indignation is lit that results in his son’s public humiliation, cowing him into submission. Tizrah is having none of that. She’s all for questioning the chapel’s rules, escaping sermons by sending her mind soaring over her beloved mountainside. One day she confronts, Brân, a ragged young boy of her own age who seems to live in the woods on the mountainside and communes with the crows who live there. Shortly afterwards, Tizrah’s bright future, built on a determination to do well at school and escape the  judgement of Horeb, takes a very different turn.

There’s more than a touch of the fable about Davies’ tragicomic novel which is told from the perspective of Tizrah. whose ‘ungovernable heart’ leads her into the kind of trouble Horeb’s congregation is all too eager to condemn, despite often being less pure themselves than they’d like others to think. Davies’ writing is striking, particularly in her descriptions of the natural world, home to Tizrah’s true spiritual centre:

Here are armies of furry, half-grown, foxgloves spears, with their tight bunches of purple buds, and amongst the bracken, old, scrambling ropes of scarlet pimpernel

Her novel is peopled with many engaging characters, from Tizrah’s mother who quietly curbs her father’s worst judgemental outbursts to Biddy who shrugs off the more ridiculous pronouncements at chapel with pragmatic aplomb while Tizrah herself lives up to her Hebrew name: she is, indeed, a delight. Davies’ ear for dialogue adds to all this. And it’s very funny at times: Davies pokes gentle fun at the ludicrous shenanigans of Herob while never losing sight of the fact that they’re so busily caught up in their piety that they fail to notice tragedy unfolding on their doorsteps. Just one jarring note for me and that was Brân who, Wikipedia tells me, is a figure from Welsh mythology. I’m not sure Davies entirely knew what to do with him, perhaps wary of wandering too far off into magic realism territory. That said, I enjoyed spending time in Tizrah’s company.

12 thoughts on “Tirzah and the Prince of Crows by Deborah Kay Davies: She is my delight

    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Isn’t it gorgeous? Jewel-like colours. I’m sure I missed a good deal, too. It was clear that Brân was a figure from folklore which led me to look him up.

      Reply
  1. buriedinprint

    Characters caught up in their own piety make for good reading, with all that ironic potential. That reminds me of the Dickens character, the mother, who makes the daughter write all those letters for the social good and meanwhile the mother is woefully neglectful of her own family’s needs (which somehow still manages to remain comic even though the description makes it sound totally dire).

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Your connection clicked another into place in my mind: Ally’s mother in Sarah Moss’ Bodies of Light who spends her life ministering to the poor while neglecting her own daughters.

      Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      The press release is a little coy about just who is making the comparison, it has to be said. I enjoyed it, though. Tirzah is a particularly engaging character.

      Reply
  2. Elle

    Agreed – the magical realism element is kind of inconclusive, and the book was rather too long for its plot, but Tirzah is a joy to spend time with.

    Reply
  3. Naomi

    I wouldn’t have thought this would be funny based on the premise, but after your review I can almost hear the engaging voice of Tirzah. And I like reading about cults and religions – they often make for thought-provoking and/or entertaining reading.

    Reply

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