Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Coward's Tale by Vanessa Gebbie

Vanessa Gebbie and I narrowly overlapped in Alex Keegan’s Boot Camp for writers, Vanessa just leaving as I arrived. We’ve corresponded off and on since then, on this blog or on hers, and I’ve read a lot of her short fiction over the years. The Coward’s Tale is her first novel.

Claire King, in her interview with Vanessa, recommends the novel’s “careful untangling of cause and effect.” Just so. And the cause and effect which is untangled spreads over years, and across generations, and into the lives of an entire town. The Coward’s Tale is an evocation of time and place, a study of guilt and responsibility and an exploration of families and community. And holding all of this together is a meta-narrative about stories and storytelling. This latter point, which gradually gains in importance as the novel proceeds, becomes central to its conclusion.

The core of The Coward’s Tale is an accident in the Kindly Light Pit in Wales one September morning, in which a large number of the local men are killed. Anywhere, this would be a disaster; in such a small, tightly-knit community, the repercussions are grave and long-lasting. The event itself, though, takes place largely off-stage. The facts of the terrible day are gradually revealed to us through the main narrative, which concerns men and women descended from the victims of that disaster, people who are still, two generations on, profoundly affected by it.

The device which connects the two timeframes is the beggar Ianto Passchaendale Jenkins, a survivor of the disaster who is tortured by guilt and convinced that he is, as his father had forewarned, a coward. This coward, a gentle and genial soul, is a storyteller, and in return for a toffee he tells his stories of the men and women whose lives were ruined by the disaster, tells of the pain and despair, how that pain and despair was transmitted across generations, and how it shapes the life of the town yet. His principal audience is Laddy, a young boy sent to the town to live with his grandmother while his parents negotiate a protracted separation. Lies and truth inform Laddy’s values, define the poles of his moral compass. Gradually, through Ianto’s stories and the light they shine on the people around him, he begins to learn about human nature.

The stories that Ianto tells are fantastic ones, richly inventive, pleasingly strange. We have a woodwork teacher who obsessively carves wooden leaves, trying to make one which will float on an up-draught; there is Half Harris, “born twice”, presumed dead at birth and buried in a shallow grave, only to be dug up again by his mother and found to be alive; and the undertaker and deputy librarian following a straight line from the back of the pub all the way through the town; a window in a derelict chapel which is cleaned with fallen leaves each autumn by succeeding generations of one of the victims of Kindly Light; poor Batty Annie with her net, trying to catch the essence of her long-dead child; and Ianto himself, troubled, pained, a much better human being than he seems prepared to accept.

All of this could easily descend into whimsy, the sort of high imagination and grand plotting that eventually came to give magic realism a bad name. But Vanessa Gebbie has laboured long over The Coward’s Tale – more than five years, apparently – and has polished it into something rich and worthwhile. The stories, the tales of these families, come together in a powerful way. Again and again we see the legacy of pain visited on future generations: Icarus making his wooden leaves because his father, and his grandfather before him, declared that only when he makes one which floats can a man truly call himself a carpenter; Factual Philips, the deputy librarian, echoing the strident seriousness of his father and grandfather by ensuring that young boys do not play in his library; Baker Barnes, a chiropodist still living in the old bakery abandoned by his grandfather, the original Baker Barnes who was so affected by Kindly Light that he could never bake again; and so on. The traumas experienced by the town in the disaster ravel around it through succeeding years, binding three generations into a web of silent pain.

But breaking through the silence is Ianto Passchaendale Jenkins, the storyteller. He tells his stories and finds a ready audience in young Laddy. With great humour, he reveals the pains of the locals and, gradually, those inherited memories begin to ease. Baker Barnes learns to bake; the descendent of the thief Billy Little finds atonement; Factual Philips closes his library and enjoys himself. This is the act of telling as catharsis; the town is beginning to rediscover itself, its peace, a sense of equilibrium. But more than this: Laddy, Ianto’s audience, is writing down the tales, memorialising them and, in the process, releasing them from the active, living memories of the descendants, allowing those people to finally break free from the tyranny of family history. An oral memory kept by Ianto is written down by Laddy and, in this, one wonders whether this boy, the scribe of their history, stands closer to the author than even the author realises. The novel cycles to a fine climax with the tale of Ianto Jenkins himself, told by the most unlikely of storytellers. In the process, another barrier is breached by the power of communication, and it is this insistence on shared experience, on mutual understanding, which becomes the lasting memory of a very fine novel indeed.

Because of my own circumstances, studying American literature, I don’t read a lot of British fiction. My perception, almost as an outsider, is that the view of some critics that the English novel is small and insular and lacking in ambition is probably correct. Certainly, the strain exemplified by On Chesil Beach or The Sense of An Ending suggests a particular, miniaturist approach to the business. Such novels are Vermeer-like, aiming to cast a light on the general by obsessive examination of the specific, burrowing ever deeper into a single story, an isolated moment, in search of meaning. It is an approach that can be beautiful, for sure, achingly so, but it can never hope to reflect the ragtag boisterousness of human community. For that, we need a Breughel, a visionary who sees the totality of a scene and catalogues it for us, warts and piss and all. Vanessa Gebbie’s vision is undoubtedly Brueghelian: she captures an entire community and makes it live. There is a robustness about this novel that is very impressive. Its humour is bold and finely tuned. This author cares about her characters and they become real in her hands. There is certainly no lack of ambition here. If the English novel is indeed small and insular, long live the English-Welsh novel, because The Coward’s Tale is most definitely not that.

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