So starts The Coward’s Tale by Vanessa Gebbie, a book so magical and lyrical that even three weeks after finishing it, I ache to go and join the queue outside the cinema and listen again to the stories Ianto tells.
The book tells the tale of Ianto Passchendaele Jenkins, a beggar and story teller, who shares the history of the town and its inhabitants with anyone willing to buy him a coffee or offer him a sweet. A young boy, Laddy Merridew comes to town to stay with his grandmother while his parents’ marriage goes through a rough patch, and he forms an unlikely friendship with the older man.
There is a great sense of affection in this story. Ms Gebbie obviously loves her characters and there is a great sense of humanity running through the book. None of the characters is perfect, but they are each redeemable and capable of much goodness. I loved the nicknames of the characters; each was so descriptive of its owner’s personality. There is Factual Phillips the librarian, Half Harris a mentally disabled man and Icarus Evans, the woodwork teacher whose aim was to carve a feather from wood so realistically that it would float like a real feather.
Stalking each tale is the disaster at the Kindly Light Pit, the details of which we don’t learn until very near the end of the book. The disaster casts a long shadow over the inhabitants of the town, but for none more than Ianto Jenkins.
The Coward’s Tale is a book filled with humor, whimsy and heartbreak and is a testament to the healing power generated when a community comes together.
Vanessa Gebbie has a wonderful voice and has handled the Welsh dialect deftly. There are enough clues so that we know the speaker is Welsh, but not so much that it becomes a pastiche. Each ‘tale’ reads like a short story and the way the author has fitted them together to create The Coward’s Tale is nothing short of masterful. It is only when you reach the end that you understand just how deftly the author has woven symbolism and metaphor throughout the book. This is literary fiction at its accessible best.
I can’t tell you how the book ends, but I can tell you it is so heartbreakingly perfect that I had tears running down my face.
I urge you to go buy this book to discover for yourself how wonderful The Coward’s Tale really is.
If you come back to my blog on Saturday March 31st there will be an interview with Vanessa Gebbie herself and a chance to win a paperback copy of The Coward’s Tale.