Laddy Merridew comes to spend time with his Gran in an old Welsh mining town in Vanessa Gebbie’s ‘A Coward’s Tale’. Not happy with his lot, lost in the in-between, here where he doesn’t feel like he belongs so starts skipping school and there, the home he has come from that is breaking apart and will never be as it was and what’s worse, is requiring him to make decisions he feels incapable of making.
Laddy comes to the town statue outside the public library to listen to the local beggar Ianto Jenkins tell and trade stories for a coffee or a bite to eat and this part of his day passes pleasantly for hearing and learning about the descendants and ancestors of the town, all of whom have in some way been touched by the tragedy at the Kindly Light coalmine one September morning back then.
‘We’re meant to be doing coal mines in history.’
‘History, now, is it?’
‘They make it boring though. Not like your stories. You make it like it is still happening, in your head anyway.’
And the beggar shakes that head. ‘It is. And sometimes Maggot, I wish it wasn’t.’
Ianto Passchendaele Jenkins narrates the stories that link present day inhabitants back to their ancestors, two generations previous, showing that one is rarely ever completely free of the past and the sins of the fathers are often witnessed albeit in a new form, in the actions of those living today. From Baker Bowen to the Woodwork Teacher, Halfwit and the Deputy Bank Manager, the Deputy Librarian and the Undertaker and the Piano Tuner, Ianto shares their tales with warmth and compassion until finally one of his characters, the Collier, Peter Edwards share’s the beggar’s story, ‘The Coward’s Tale’.
Like young Laddy who no longer knows whether what his parents say is true or not, so too with the beggar’s tales, which captivate cinemagoers waiting in the queue, keeping him talking by topping up his coffee supply, the author making use of the words may and will to imagine what people may do and if so what that means they will do. Only Laddy searches for clarification, the others are happy to be mesmerised and encourage him with edible gifts.
‘For my breakfast? I will tell a story for breakfast? An egg. How about a nice egg?’
Once I got into the tales and understood the framework, I enjoyed the book, but I admit it took three attempts before the stories managed to carry me away with their rhythmic, poetic prose. However they are splendid tales and told with a unique captivating voice that puts the reader right in that square with all the other listeners, empathizing with each of the characters that the adored Ianto Jenkins brings to life for them.
Finally I am reminded of another set of tales of life in a small French village in Julia Stuart’s The Matchmaker of Perigord, which was a favourite a few years back, which I also recommend as a compelling, humorous summer read.
Note:This book was an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), provided by the publisher via NetGalley.