Small-town tapestries
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Small-town tapestries

THE COWARD'S TALE. By Vanessa Gebbie. Bloomsbury. 367pp. $32.99. THE FINE COLOUR OF RUST. By P.A. O'Reilly. Blue Door. 347pp. $29.99. Reviewer: IAN McFARLANE

These two novels are set on opposite sides of the world - The Coward's Tale in a Welsh village haunted by a mining disaster, and The Fine Colour of Rust in an Australian country town struggling to reinvent itself - but they both share an upbeat mood of picaresque companionship in demonstrating the value of storytelling in sustaining a community.

Vanessa Gebbie has won awards for short fiction, and the prose in her novel, The Coward's Tale, swings along with the irresistible lilt of Dylan Thomas. I would love to hear it read aloud by someone who could accurately carry the accent. There's poetry here; real poetry, with the passionate pulsation of flesh and blood, rather than the clinical intellectualism of literary postmodernism. This kind of narrative cadence is perfect for a slow Sunday afternoon, having made sure the phones are switched off, digital distraction has been banished and anyone likely to ring the door bell informed that you are visiting the Galapagos Islands.

Ten-year-old Laddy Merridew stumbles off a bus, his socks around his ankles and a small brown suitcase clutched to his chest. He has been sent to live with his grandmother while his parents separate, but no one has come to meet him. The town beggar and storyteller Ianto Passchendaele Jenkins helps the confused boy in the direction of the library, where Laddy's grandmother works as a cleaner. The boy thanks Ianto and then apologises for being a crybaby. Ianto replies, ''I am a coward. And that's worse.''

The small town clings tenuously to its past: a couple of generations earlier, a terrible disaster closed the Kindly Light mine, and no one works underground now. However, the tragedy has journeyed down the years through stories, mysteriously collected by the enigmatic Ianto, who tells them to people in the town cinema queue, most of whom are willing to donate a sandwich or a coffee to risk missing the film in order to listen.

Laddy doesn't settle well into his new school, and often goes missing, usually in the direction of Ianto's makeshift home, the stone porch of Ebenezer Chapel, where he is apt to find the beggar dozing on a mattress of old newspapers, and occasionally tapping the face of his pocket watch (which has no hands) to remind himself of the passage of time. Long ago, as a young child, Ianto was sent down the fearful Kindly Light mine, witnessed the disaster, and was traumatised into (unfairly) regarding himself a coward. This novel is a wonderful tapestry of the way compassionate kinship celebrates life, and is highly recommended.

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P.A. (Paddy) O'Reilly has also achieved favourable notice as a short-story writer. I reviewed her first novel, The Factory, back in 2005, a cross-cultural account of a controversial arts community in rural Japan. Her second, The Fine Colour of Rust, takes a different path, with its highly entertaining, and frequently irreverent, look at a neglected mid-west Victorian town, quietly rusting towards irrelevance in the anonymous bush.

The first-person narration comes from a single mother, Loretta Boskovic, a self-described ''old scrag'', who dreams of dumping her two children in an orphanage and riding off into the sunset on the back of her fantasy lover's Harley Davidson.

But Loretta is really just a sweetie, sharing the hard times with old Norm, a grumpy but kind-hearted widower and junkyard owner. Loretta worries endlessly over her children, while working as a social justice advocate. She leads a campaign to save the local primary school, as well as sniffing out corruption on the local council, involving greedy developers. An entirely plausible scenario, carried off with a rollicking sense of fun that never diminishes the underlying humanity of its characters.

The Fine Colour of Rust may lack the poetic Welsh accent of The Coward's Tale, but more than compensates with its wickedly self-deprecating wit, delivered with the authentic larrikin voice of an outback Aussie town.

Ian McFarlane is a South Coast writer and reviewer.

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