It seems to me that not long ago I was complaining that publishers keep putting out very samey books, and we might have to fear for the fate of literature in a book market dominated by commercial concerns. And then along comes a novel that is boldly and powerfully different and I am very happy to be eating my words. As I was reading The Coward’s Tale by Vanessa Gebbie, I was trying to think how I could describe this book to you when it is so very unusual. If you took Miss Read’s old-fashioned village stories, and strained them through Dickens with his colourful cast of working class folk, dominated by the demands of the local industry and hard up against the cruelty and the unexpected sweetness of life, and you added a touch of fairy tale with its warped inventiveness (think Brothers Grimm, not Disney) then you might be getting near it. And then I thought, Garrison Keillor, that’s who this story reminds me of, with its distinctive voice that travels through a community telling the pleasures and pains of its inhabitants, a Welsh version of Garrison Keillor.
The community in this case is a small Welsh mining town, a little down-at-heel now that the last of the pits has closed. Two generations ago when the mining industry was at its height, one of the pits, the ill-named Kindly Light, collapsed, killing many of the husbands, sons and brothers in the town. The ramifications of this tragedy, the legacy of grievances it caused, have been handed down through families to this present moment, where they take unusual form. Why is the local woodworking teacher obsessed with carving feathers of wood? Why does the local window cleaner steal into the empty chapel to clean the stained glass with a handful of leaves? Why is the deputy librarian so insistent that children should not play in his library? The town is a nest of secrets, disfiguring the lives that are wrapped around them.
Stumbling off the bus one evening is a young boy, Laddy Merridew, who has come to stay with his grandma while his parents work through their divorce. Laddy is small and scared and new, an easy target for the schoolground bullies. But he quickly makes friends with the old beggar man, Ianto ‘Passchendale’ Jenkins, who turns out to hold the collective memory of the community. Ianto was a young boy himself when the pit collapsed, forced to work there at the tender age of twelve, despite his terrible fear of the dark, because his father had suffered a debilitating accident that left him crippled. Ianto has his own story to tell about what happened on the day of the tragedy, one of guilt and responsibility that have combined to make him what he is. While that story gradually unfolds, he tells Laddy (and any other of the crowd gathered on the steps of the cinema to await the next film) for the price of a toffee or a cup of tea with sugar, the stories behind the strange quirks of the local people. The stories are profoundly sad, as frozen grief and unresolved misery have hardened into compulsions or parental dictates that are still holding the grandchildren of the victims in their thrall. Yet, as the stories are released into the wind of the town, a wind that directs the narrative around its streets and houses, seeking out more strange occurrences to be explained, so the townspeople begin to find atonement and redemption. Brothers are reunited, friends help each other out, love, sometimes, springs anew.
This could become twee or whimsical, but it never does. The resolutions to the sorrows of the townspeople are as particular and eccentric, often, as their original compulsive disorders. This isn’t a narrative that uses the pain of others lightly, in order to provide glib solutions. Instead, I felt that this novel is a powerful tribute to the notion of living memory. Ianto is the last person who still remembers the accident down the pit, the last person to know from experience what it did to the families, how it shaped and distorted their lives. As he passes those memories on to a new generation, in the form of the stories he tells, they have the force to transform and a kind of cleansing power. We see a community beginning to heal, but we are in no doubt as to the suffering it has borne. The brilliance of the narrative is to use the figure of the storyteller, with his swarm of dark fairy tales recounted in an easy, musical voice, to tell us so much about the tenacity of ordinary suffering, and the magic of healing that can be found in the most surprising places.
I was deeply moved by this book. It is at times incredibly sad, but always brave, inventive and beautiful