Writers Read: Vanessa Gebbie “The Coward’s Tale” (Re-post from July 2012)

Doris Sommer in her article “Art and Accountability” (which investigates, among other things, cultural agency), declares that “Constraint is a condition of creativity, not a nemesis.” In this, a time of world-wide constraint, it is worth turning to our creative impulses and seeing how they behave. Out on a hill walk with my daughter, I was reminded as I watched her count the rings on a tree trunk, of Vanessa’s The Coward’s Tale. I remembered the woodwork teacher (son of a carpenter and seamstress) and how he carved wooden feathers (what a great image), I remembered, as I picked up a stone or two, how Baker Bowen returned to his baking. How he

knows then that his hands are made from the same stuff as those that worked here long ago. That there is memory deep in these hands, in the bones and the flesh.

I’d bought it in hardback – I just loved the cover – take a closer look at those beautiful feathers! It sat on my self, then on my bedside locker and was finally opened. I sat down, for a short read – a break from an intense writing session – while in residency at The Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig. I stopped reading when I finished the story that frames all the stories in The Coward’s Tale – that of Ianto Jenkins, who declares that he “is a coward” which is worse, he says in reply to our other hero, Laddy Merridew, who declares himself a “cry-baby.” Neither characters’ declarations of self are true – what we realise when we reach the end of the novel is that any statement of being is merely a statement which echoes the constraints of identity imposed by the surroundings. This is no accident. Take a look at Gebbie’s wonderful map connecting place and character on her blog.

On the surface, this is a novel about an invented Welsh mining village in which there has been a mining disaster, narrated by Ianto, the beggar man who is befriended by the bullied Laddy. Predictably, we know from the start that these characters – one old, one young –  will teach each other a moral of sorts. Yet this is something of a red herring.

The real story, the depth of the novel, lies in the way Gebbie weaves notions of fate through the telling of family histories. Ianto, is the cultural agent. He sees what others do not. He sees how people know things through their senses, through their skin. Maggie, wife of the publican, dances with the curtains open, knowing that she is being watched and yet she

sways and turns, her skin heavy and glowing in the streetlights, then she pauses, shadows playing on her dark places.

All the characters have been touched by the mining tragedy (they are, as the ‘book tree’ calls them, The Kindly Light Generations) and those who try and change through love or hurt what is in their genes, are unable to do so. Take Peter, whose father beats him so that he will learn and read, so that he will not go down the mine. Peter, who becomes a gifted story-teller, feels and hears the stories in each stone, each nugget of coal he picks up. He cannot help it. It isinhim. Through some beautifully poetic phrases, Gebbie creates a sense of hope.

Peter…felt not just the hardness of a stone in his palm, but instead, he felt inside himself the snouting of a beast deep in the years, foraging among tree roots long gone.

Sommers says that

Like writers, composers, painters, and playwrights, humanists who interpret and teach about art can also raise expectations that creativity may contribute to democratic social change.

What Gebbie has her well-crafted narrator do is essentially this. His stories – part fable, part biblical, part historical – and how they are told changes the nature of the people in the village.

Firstly, through a very dramatic ending in which they show their love for this outsider, and secondly, through coming together as a community, in unity with the landscape that surrounds them (rather than against it) in an act of hope rather than despair. In the words of Ianto Passchendaele Jenkins

If you have love to give it has to go somewhere, for it cannot go nowhere.

In the end, we are all cry-babies and cowards but in the very, very end, love and hope will prevail.

Visit Vanessa Gebbie’s website

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