The Coward's Tale, By Vanessa Gebbie

Bloomsbury, £16.99

Leyla Sanai
Tuesday 27 December 2011 01:00 GMT

Last November, another mining disaster struck a pit in Wales, the latest in scores of such tragedies. So Vanessa Gebbie's debut novel strikes a prescient note. Gebbie, whose short stories have won awards, has turned her gaze to a mining community similar to that in which her parents grew up in Merthyr Tydfil.

When Laddy Merridew is sent to live with his granny while his parents separate, he finds new friendships difficult to forge. The only person who has time to talk to him is the town beggar Ianto, who is full of stories about the inhabitants. Most of them have relatives who were touched by the disaster decades previously at the Kindly Light pit, where one day the mountain caved in.

Through Ianto's tales, the townsfolk gradually develop colours and personalities. Dark secrets and tragedies have formed the paths many have taken. Icarus Evans, the woodwork teacher, has mystified generations of boys by asking them to carve feathers out of wood. Tutt Bevan, the undertaker, is obsessed with finding a straight path through the town. Why? The answers are in Ianto's stories. Why does Matty Harris initially deny being related to Jimmy "Half" Harris? What tragedy drove Nathan Bartholomew's grandmother to prostitution? All these mysteries unfurl through Ianto's tales, bringing a rich sense of history.

Gebbie's prose has something of the musical rhythm and cadence of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood. The lilting dialect is seductive and the poetic sweep through a town and its folk reminiscent of Jon McGregor's masterpiece, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. The poetry is unobtrusive but makes the characters live and breathe.

Gebbie is as at ease with humour as she is with poignancy. The latter is shown to heartbreaking effect not only in scenes of those bereaved in the pit disaster, but also the pasts of some residents, such as that of Lillian Harris, whose grief-numbed grandmother buries one of Lillian's sons, assuming him stillborn.

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.

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