The Coward’s Tale follows the telling of tales about the families affected by a disasterous cave-in at a coal mine.
Local beggar Ianto Jenkins’s stories are of interest to the town’s people, who long to know what their deceased ancestors were like, and also of fascination to “cry-baby” Laddy Merridew, a young boy whose problematic home and school life often drive him to the streets. Ultimately a deep friendship is forged between the boy and the beggar, until the storyteller becomes the story told, and the origins of Ianto himself are discovered by all he has spoken to.
Gebbie writes in episodic form, using irrealis moods, overlapping characters, situations and time-frames, and divides her work into indexed chapters. Her style is striking and distinctive, but the frequent use of hypothetical situations makes the actions taken by the characters hard to distinguish from the actions they have not taken, and as a result the narrative is clunky and often confused.
But Gebbie’s characterisation of the friendship between the boy and the beggar is moving, and the creation of her own compelling universe is also to be credited, as the town breathes with its own life and vigour. The Coward’s Tale ends up drawing you into its twisting narrative with homely anecdotes and evocative characters which resonate through you long after the final page.