Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Friday 13 July 2012

"the Coward's Tale" by Vanessa Gebbie (Bloomsbury, 2011)

Warning - this write-up is chock-a-block with spoilers. I first noticed Vanessa Gebbie in magazines. Then she published two excellent books of stories. Now she's published a novel with Bloomsbury. There's even an interactive map.


Some traits (and as Jonathan Pinnock notes, perhaps some characters) are familiar from earlier books. About "Words from a glass bubble" (her first book) I wrote "It's striking how early the characters introduce themselves (or another character) to the reader - many first pages have 'I'm X' or 'X is'". The 1st sentence here is "My name is Ianto Jenkins. I am a coward". The character he befriends introduces himself by saying "My name is Laddy Merridew. I’m a cry-baby. I’m sorry." "Words from a glass bubble" features cleaners and several churches. Here we have a library cleaner and a window cleaner. Ianto sleeps rough by the unused church. "Storm Warning" (her second book) has several inter-generational relationships, old soldiers and nicknames. Here Ianto and Laddy form an early bond, and nicknames figure strongly.

Telling stories

The main character is Ianto, a beggar. His watch has no hands - he's a storyteller, outside of time. When a novel's main character is a storyteller it's tempting to view the character as the author's spokesperson, or at least as the author's vision of the nature of storytelling. He's homeless (his old kitbag a pillow) but is based in the chapel porch (conscience, spirituality), earning his food by entertaining the queues outside the cinema (oral tales financed by new technology). He tends to explain behaviour by going back a generation or two, a determinism emphasised by repeated patterns - "Like father like son" (p.284). He doesn't look into the future - he's not a seer or a Fool. His life-story is his own though, dictated by events. He has something of a survivor complex - "Why was I here at all? Why am I here at all? That was and is something I can't answer", p.301. He has identity issues too

  • "I stand here now with the sun behind me, and look at the ground, at my shadow. Take that away and how do I really know I am here at all?" (p.297).
  • "I went down to the river, to the hollow where the robin's old nest was perched in the rowans. I went to it, to see something whole. And it was gone, broken up", p.299

What role does Laddy plays for the tramp? Laddy's about 10, an outsider (symbolising objectivity?), new to the town, staying with his gran while his parents work through their separation. Not only is he isolated from his parents but he's shunned by his peers. His clothes (made from his grandfather's) smell of mothballs. Perhaps he's a replacement for Ianto's younger brother who used to listen to his stories, or a possible amanuensis, or someone to continue his work? But he's leaving soon.

Near the end we hear why Peter Edwards wasn't interested in stories - he says 'No indeed. Stories is bubbles' (p.310) though as a child he began to feel the ancient history of bone-fossils. An ex-miner, he promised his wife that he'll seek work once his hands are clean, but keeps coal in his pockets. His wife leaves him, though he tells no one. Suddenly homeless, he begins telling a story about Ianto. The town has a new storyteller. That night Ianto dies in his sleep, his job done.

Repeated themes

  • Boots are expensive. They're important possessions and hence become a symbol of identity. Siblings share them, ill-fitting though they might be. A dead man's boots are passed on. When a man has a mental breakdown and is found in the wilderness, he's asked "Where are your boots?". He replies "Left them, must have". Three paragraphs later "they knew then he could not have spoken to anyone about his boots" (p.40). When Ianto flipped, he said "I took them off and left them under the bank by the stream, and I walked on barefoot", (p.299). And "That day, I sat on the bed and reached for my boots. And my fingers and feet did not want the boots of dead Mr Earnest Ellis, standing there on the rug. They wanted the small boots I had shared with my brother" (p.297).
  • Light and darkness - "There's kids still play on the ridge above the cemetery with bits of broken mirror, flashing the sun" [into the library] (p.325). The Kindly Light mine is blackness - "Like a great cathedral it was, Maggot, down there", p.235. Flour is contrasted with coal-dust. Neither Ianto nor Laddy like sleeping in the dark. The strong ending brings night, fire and feathers together.
  • Maps - "Sometimes, all maps do is stop us finding new places. And ... sometimes, maps make places different to how they re in our heads" (p.163). In Library/Undertaker part iv, 2 men retrace the route where they used to choo-choo across the town, cutting a straight line through re-built zones, going in and out of houses (shades of Cheever's "The Swimmer"). A map of the mines is drawn in the back of a hymnsheet - a palimpsest


I doubt if the author's ever written a clumsy sentence. There are passages (not least in the final chapter) when the prose soars. Sometimes the "continuous future" tense is used. The Welsh-tinged language can be richly figurative, often using personification

  • "He pulls up his socks, and when he straightens they fall back to his ankles as if they are more comfortable down there", p.3
  • "their bedroom floor is uneven so both glasses for the false teeth go on one table, where they can smile at each other until morning", p.8
  • "and where his mouth is, a smile begins", p.142
  • "Sometimes the wind will lose its voice in the noises of the town", p.169
  • "The next day, in the afternoon, the cinema is closed while someone talks to the machinery", p.233
  • "When the town is asleep, the breeze steals in under the doors when the walls are not watching", p.263.
  • "And lumpen pillows on unmade beds, their dips and valleys as familiar as songs", p.214

I think this language might divide readers - it divides me a little, especially when the similes are piled on - "Today, when it has been cold as a sneer for weeks, most unusual for September, and there is even a frost in the mornings like a shroud, and the earth is frozen, Half Harris closes the door to number eleven Maerdy Street as gentle as a feather", (p.53). 3 similes in a sentence, none of then striking (though the use of "feather" may be significant). Ah, but who's piling on the similies, the narrator or the characters? Just as names affect people, so the characters reciprocatingly affect the narrational language.


I had some trouble at the start with the style. The habitual attaching of nicknames to names reminded me of the Welsh as they're depicted in comedies and children's programs (e.g. the "Ivor the Engine" series had characters like "Jones the steam", "Dai Station", "Owen the Signal", etc). I suspect however that it's a cliché based on reality. People inherit nicknames, become more like their nicknames. The woodwork teacher "Icarus" Evans tries to make feathers from wood, looks after an injured bird. But sometimes the repetition's too much for me - "to wake the beggar Ianto Passchendaele Jenkins dozing on his bench in the porch. Mrs Prinny Ellis is sucking a bullseye while she waits, maybe reading a magazine, something to do with the South Seas and palm trees and sailing ships. Ianto Passchendaele Jenkins the beggar comes down the steps", (p.17).

Also I took a while adapting to the pacing. I suppose I arrived expecting a 20-20 Flash when I should have come prepared for a test-match. It became unputdownable for me halfway through the Library/Undertaker tale. Re-reading the early parts, they look fine.


The book begins with a boy's arrival, end with an old man's death. The nature of Ianto's putative cowardice gradually emerges. The first chapter's an overture introducing the ensemble cast and, symbolically, the main themes. Then the characters' tales are told, often in four parts. They're fine stories, though I wondered whether we sometimes spend too long with each character. Maybe the parts could have been split up, though that would have affected accessibility.

My favorites are: the Baker's story - the name not matching the person; the contrast of flour with coal-dust; the strange ritual; parts iii and iv of the Library/Undertaker tale; James Little's story. James Little should have said that he goes to the allotment late to pick slugs - sometimes it's the only way.


On the back cover a fusion of Realism and Magic Realism is suggested. There's gritty realism though only near the end does unemployment feature, families doing "night gardening" (p.274), picking coal from the hillside. Ianto's accuracy is challenged at one point by Laddy. I'm not surprised: his stories have a tidiness that's at times more fable than realism. For example, the window cleaner's mother, Meggie Jones, when newly widowed, cleaned the stained glass windows with her tears, hoping to see her late husband depicted. Less tidily, Icarus is building a boat rather than a plane, though he's building it from undertaker's offcuts. At times I wondered if the symbolism was too explicit, but with simple, strong symbols there's always that risk.

Space and Time

We hear little about the outside world - those who temporarily leave are in crisis; those who move away are dealt with in a sentence. Only one person returns, and he has flights of fancy - "he is wondering how this piano would sound if he took it to the mine and played it in that space where Laddy Merridew played his drum. Wondering if he could wheel it all the way there, through these streets and along the river", p.202.

The town's dying out, cutting itself off. A statue of a miner commemorates the Kindly Light disaster which many people don't remember. The town clock chimes on the hour, but not in a way that makes the hour identifiable; the bell's muffled by rags. The town hall clock's stuck at ten past two. Though Ianto's watch has no hands, he still winds it up. Time doesn't stand still, it's cyclic. The town, like Laddy's clothes, is mothballed. Signs and paths all point back in time - "all over the town, on the front room walls, high in the half-curtained dark, the town's ancestors watch from their ebony frames, their noses, ears and mouths all mirrors of the statue's" (p.6). The Kindly Light disaster links the families up. There are family trees at the end. The restricted physical space (the town) and the back-looking treatment of time lends a claustrophobic feel to the book, further underlined by the inevitability of how people turn out once we learn about their grandparents. Within that constraint there's a rich cast of characters, and the expectations (e.g. those generated by discovering that someone's father is a thief) are sometimes overturned.

Other reviews

  • Layla Sanai (The Independent) (It would have been good to have more of a current storyline. Hints of bullying are never investigated fully, nor is Laddy's past or future much touched on. But this is my only criticism of a hypnotic debut.)
  • C.J. Flood (Throughout the book the everyday is transformed by whimsy and significance into something touching and extraordinary. My only criticism of the book would be that it felt more like interconnected short stories than a novel)
  • Kirkus Review (With the hypnotic charm of her Welsh lilt, natural storyteller Gebbie whittles tales from a hard bone of loss to create a profoundly moving world.)
  • Annette Thomson (This is literary fiction at its accessible best)
  • Mary Whipple (Filled with unforgettable descriptions and emotionally moving insights into people of all types)
  • Jonathan Pinnock (I noticed an old friend make an appearance in The Coward’s Tale – Tommo Price from your Bridport Prize-winning story 'I Can Squash the King, Tommo'. Also, Baker Bowen seems to be closely related to Edwin Tregear from your Fish Short Story Competition prize-winner 'The Return of the Baker, Edwin Tregear'.)
  • Write Words (The Coward’s Tale has a quiet solemnity and dignity about it and yet manages at the same time to be funny and strange and touching)
  • Victoria Watson (The rhythm and cadence in Vanessa Gebbie’s writing is beautiful)
  • Sally Zigmond (Slowly but surely, Vanessa adds layer after layer to create a story of humour, pathos and not a little bit of myth and magic. This novel grows and grows)
  • TomConoboy (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.)
  • Robert Walton (New Welsh Review) (a début novel that is powerful in its storytelling, touching in its view of small-town life, and bold in its stylised language)


  1. hello Tim - I am hugely grateful to you for the time taken over this amazing analysis. Thank you so much - as always I am left thinking - 'blimey - did I write that?' ! :)

  2. It's tricky working out which reactions are individualistic and which might be shared by many readers. When students are asked to write essays about it we'll see whether they're struck by the same themes as I was. My reaction to the Welshisms is my problem (I've watched too much Postman Pat over the years). Readers are bound to have differing views on the novel-or-stories issue - it depends on what they're used to and I've just read Oyeyemi's "Mr Fox".

  3. The 'Welshisms' - names, I guess - are simply there because that's how things were/are still. Its amazing how many Welsh establishment bods rubbish the idiosyncratic naming - whilst at the same time demanding realism :)