Book Review: Tirzah and the Prince of Crows by Deborah Kay Davies

Book - Tirzah and the Prince of CrowsSet in the South Wales Valleys, in the 1970s, Tirzah and the Prince of Crows follows the story of a sixteen-year-old girl as she grows into adulthood. Tirzah has been brought up in a very strict, chapel-going family, but she soon begins to sense a change within herself, and an unsettling desire for freedom.  

The book begins abruptly, as we are propelled into the middle of a prayer meeting, where Tirzah is occupied both in observing the actions of those around her and also in imagining herself to be elsewhere. This captures the tone of the novel – Tirzah is caught between the strict rules and regulations of chapel life, and the natural, unhindered freedom of the outdoors and of her own imagination.

Tirzah is confused by her feelings for her friend Osian, and shocked by the way his father treats him. She begins to rebel against the strict rules set down by her parents, and yet she is also aware of her own naivety, certain that there is more to life than what she has been taught. Each chapter is headed with a single verse taken from the Bible, emphasising its significance in Tirzah’s life. As Tirzah grows in self-awareness, she also begins to see how the religious community in which she lives places too much emphasis on sin and repentance, over love and forgiveness.

There is a strange mixture of both reality and myth living side by side. Tirzah feels a strong, almost surreal connection to the tangible world around her – the mountains, woods and streams which surround their small village, and the physical changes in her own body as she grows into womanhood. But she is also drawn inexplicably towards Brân, a strange boy who appears to live on the margins, literally making dens in the woods and communing with crows.

Brân appears to be based on Bendigeidfran or Brân the Blessed, a character from a set of ancient Welsh myths called the Mabinogion. If you suspend disbelief, and consider Brân to be representative of something – a kind of primeval spirit, not quite defined, the book reads as a fable or myth. But he could equally be representative of everything that Tirzah is not – while she has a fairly peaceful, religious home-life with loving, though overly-pious parents, he is homeless, abandoned, irreligious and violent. He is a shadowy, estranged figure, living on the edge of Tirzah’s world. In fact, his absence from much of the narrative creates a sense of disbelief, as if he is a mythical, pagan creature drawn from the past, intent on making havoc, or even a figment of Tirzah’s own imagination. Though in other ways he is perfectly real.

The writing style takes a bit of getting used to, written as it is in present tense, and told from Tirzah’s perspective, without any clear differentiation between speech, thought and action. It’s sometimes difficult to work out what’s going on, but this confusion fits with the sense of hyper-reality that we get from seeing into Tirzah’s mind.

The plot is simple, but the main thread of the narrative is one of character development, as Tirzah begins to see that everyone has their own faults and problems, including her parents. There is a real tenderness in her observations:

“She can’t help suppressing a small throb of sympathy for her father. He is always trying to do the right thing, but he so often gets them all in a mess. He is a good person, she knows, seeing in a flash that she is very much like him in some ways…”

And it’s not only Tirzah who grows up in this novel. Her parents and other members of the community are forced to confront their own faults and to accept change, even when it costs them.

This book is unusual in its setting and breadth, mixing Welsh village life in the 1970s with myth and imagination. But it’s Tirzah’s voice that comes through loud and clear, and her beautiful, unique way of observing the world around her, with a bright and vivid personality that matches the brightly coloured cover. The book’s main focus is on family, and community, and how people can change and learn to love and forgive each other when it really matters.

Tirzah and the Prince of Crows will be published on 4th October 2018. Deborah Kay Davies will be appearing at the Cardiff Book Festival on 8th September.

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Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.