The Coward’s Tale by Vanessa Gebbie

25th Nov 2011


The narrative revolves around the friendship between newly-arrived young Laddy Merridew and Ianto Passchendale Jenkins, the elderly village beggar.

Within a community still reeling from the Kindly Light Pit collapse, Ianto has become the self-designated raconteur of the tragedies and revelations surrounding that day.

As The Coward’s Tale progresses the village inhabitants are drawn to this unlikely pair and gentle transformations begin to occur as each tale is passed from Ianto to Laddy.

Everything about this novel seems geared towards repelling a For Books’ Sake reader; it’s a male Cranford, without a single female character.

At times, the Last of the Summer Wine atmosphere seems to nearly overwhelm Gebbie’s delicate intermingling of the villagers’ episodic stories.

This, however, is where Gebbie’s strength as a novelist comes to the fore; she consistently takes unpromising, hackneyed concepts and reinvents them for a new audience.

From the beginning, Gebbie makes the shrewd decision to focus upon the grandchildren of those miners killed at Kindly Light. This removes the sense of immediate tragedy and instead refocuses upon the ways in which guilt and redemption surfaces within the generations.

This talent is particularly evident in the tale of a boy forced to become a thief by the death of his father at Kindly Light; he in turn produces a son who now spends his nights returning the stolen goods to their neighbours.

Gebbie peppers her narrative with serve to lighten the load of a novel which does make occasional references to the brutal fate of Kindly Lights’ miners.

Few writers have the confidence to intermingle whimsy and tragedy in this manner and once or twice Gebbie does overstep into the grotesque.

Putting aside the unease such handling of events can bring, however, the reader can appreciate the way in which this brittle meditation upon grief and guilt manages to break new ground in overworked territory.

Gebbie has a distinctive, lyrical voice and manages to imbue the tale of a collapsed mine with poignant touches of fantasy. Published by Bloomsbury earlier this month, you can buy it in hardback for £8.69, pre-order the paperback for £5.99, or get it on Kindle for £8.26.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for: It is a novel with much to offer both aspiring writers and readers, very wistful and very clever.

Other recommended reading: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell or Larkrise to Candleford by Flora Thompson for a similar take on the gentle humour and tragedy of a vanishing world.

Beulah Devaney