REVIEW by Robert Walton

14/08/2012

The Coward’s Tale

by Vanessa Gebbie

It is a paradox of Welsh writing in English that the person arguably considered the greatest of our writers, Dylan Thomas, is the one whose influence everyone tries to shake off. For decades our writers have restrained the rhetoric, hyperbole and bardic tones in favour of a more pared back contemporary voice – with considerable success. Vanessa Gebbie’s short stories have taken this path, particularly in the wonderful collection, Storm Warning, where she presents the atrocities and bizarre experiences of war in a style that is terse, graphic and compelling.

The Coward’s Tale is remarkable because Gebbie has taken up the baton passed on to Welsh writing by Dylan Thomas and produced a début novel that is powerful in its storytelling, touching in its view of small-town life, and bold in its stylised language. The novel is set in a small Welsh community with its collection of idiosyncratic characters, its rituals, its familiar locations – chapel, pub, library, school and street-corner. Invariably, everyone knows everyone else’s business, although there are secrets, of course, behind those net curtains, amongst the antique furniture, the ornaments and knick-knacks. Why, there are even two narrators: the beggar, Ianto Passchendaele Jenkins, who lives in the porch of Ebenezer Chapel, and his child companion, Laddy Merridew, who is staying with his Nan while his parents sort their marriage out. From the margins, and all-seeing as they guide us through the secret lives of characters with Thomasian names such as Half Harris, Icarus Evans and Factual Philips, Ianto and Laddy surely resemble the First and Second Voices of Llaregub. The comparisons with Under Milk Wood could easily lead to the view that The Coward’s Tale is derivative.

Vanessa Gebbie’s success, however, lies in the fact that she has dared to pick up a tradition in Welsh storytelling and developed it in ways that show flair, originality, command of language and an engaging voice. To begin with, Ianto Jenkins and Laddy Merridew develop a friendship that is compassionate, wry and enquiring. Laddy asks the naïve questions that children often ask of incomprehensible adult behaviour: Why do people lie? Why do we try to protect children from the notion of death? Through their conversations, Ianto tells the stories behind the apparent eccentricities of the characters, turning apparent caricatures into multi-faceted figures. It is almost Chaucerian, this telling of the Deputy Librarian’s Tale, the Piano Tuner’s Tale, the Baker’s Tale, the Window Cleaner’s Tale and, yes, the Clerk’s Tale. Ianto Jenkins’ voice deploys humour, compassion and the vivid evocation of place, so that the tales become both varied and rich in their illustration of the sadness, courage and complexity of the human tragi-comedy.

Where Gebbie’s Welsh world differs from that of Thomas is that this is a Valleys mining community. And that means pits and colliers. And it means unthinkable graft, poverty, father-to-son tradition, funerals and death. At the heart of so many of the tales is the memory of the disaster at the ironically-named Kindly Light Colliery. The traumatic experience of loss is presented directly:

In a stiff collar and borrowed trousers that scratched, to sit in silence in Ebenezer, just by here, to see and hear the last goodbyes to fathers, sons, uncles and brothers, Little Phil never forgot the darkness of that day.

Ianto Jenkins’ terror of going down the pit undercuts any sentimentality about our mining heritage, yet he conveys, too, an awe of the terrible beauty of the mines: ‘There was no other word for it… a deep, swelling, black as night beauty that was heavy as the whole world.’

In her author’s note, Gebbie states that the setting of the novel is ‘a fictitious town based tenuously on Twynyrodyn, Merthyr Tydfil’, where her parents grew up. Could this possibly be the same Merthyr of Des Barry’s A Bloody Good Friday with its extremities of violence, racism, lawlessness and alienation? No, it is another era, perhaps forty years earlier, and values were different then. If we have started to think that the Welsh industrial novel is a thing of the past, Gebbie shows how, for all its suffering and its venial faults, that world offered the possibility of comradeship, companionship and community, values that are worthy of celebration. We must not lose sight of what can be achieved in our ways of living, the novel suggests. The transformation of Merthyr in The Coward’s Tale brings the novel close to fable.

What is likely to cause the most contention amongst readers is the book’s style. There are bound to be those who find it retrogressive. I’d call it daring. There are undoubtedly frequent touches of Dylan Thomas’ wit and wordplay. ‘Today Mrs Cadwalladr the Chief Librarian has an afternoon off, gone up to Brecon to see the sister with the goitre’ has that end-of-sentence punch that Thomas often uses. Batty Annie described as stumbling along the tracks in her slippers ‘waving a shrimping net that’s full of nothing but holes’ could come straight out of Quite Early One Morning while the following would happily slot into the opening of Under Milk Wood: ‘All is dark, all the gardeners in their houses, sleeping, and planning in their dreams what potatoes they will dig up tomorrow, and what prize marrows they will grow next year.’ But Gebbie’s style is so much more than this, as shown by its recurrent motifs (Ianto’s watch with no hands, the wind, the river), wit and its modulated snatches of dialogue, by turns comic, sensitive and surreal. Above all, the narrative voice uses a syntax that combines traditional features such as the constant use of ‘and’ to start sentences, together with word-order and phrasing characteristic of the Valleys’ dialect. The effect, both ancient and modern, at times struck me as lying somewhere between that of the Bible and the prose of Niall Griffiths or Cormac McCarthy.

The Coward’s Tale cuts against the grain. Its retro qualities make it distinctive but Gebbie has learnt her art through the short story. Taking on a larger canvas, she has produced a novel which may have readers drawing deep upon their capacity for compassion as they read of the macabre fate of Batty Annie’s son and the utterly sad, tender tale of Judah Jones the Window Cleaner. Alternatively, they will quickly turn to their latest, minimalist novella for a dose of some post-modern scepticism. I’ll settle for the former, not least for the final pages which conclude in a mood reminiscent of the ending of Joyce’s The Dead, handled with pitch-perfect pathos. This novel should certainly stir a debate about the relationship of twenty-first century fiction from Wales to its heritage from the 40s and 50s.

       


previous review: The Life of Rebecca Jones
next review: The Prince of Wails





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