A Terrible Kindness recalls a day in October 1966 when coal and mud slid down a Welsh mountain side and engulfed the school in the village of Aberfan. I was a day seared in my memory because I was nine years old — the same age as many of the children who died — and like them grew up surrounded by coal mines.
More than 100 children and scores of adults, were killed in the disaster, dug out by relatives and volunteers who worked tirelessly for days even when they knew there was no hope.
This tragic event is portrayed vividly and poignantly in Jo Browning Wroe’s debut novel.
On the night of the tragedy, nineteen-year-old William Lavery is being feted at a posh dinner and dance for members of the Institute of Embalmers. He’s just become the youngest ever embalmer in the country and tipped to be one of the profession’s best practitioners. But the festivities are brought to an abrupt end by an urgent appeal for volunteers to immediately travel to Wales and tend to the victims of a horrific incident.
It will be William’s first job as an embalmer and what he experiences over the next few nights in the makeshift mortuary in Aberfan, re-awakens memories of his own childhood trauma. As he tends gently to the bodies of small children dug out from the slurry and witnesses their parent’s grief, “the flotsam and jetsam of his own life is washed up by the tidal wave of Aberfan’s grief.”
Throughout the book we’re given hints that some calamity befell William when he was a boy, causing him to leave Cambridge abruptly without completing a coveted scholarship scholarship at a university choir school . It’s not until the final chapters do we learn what happened, and why this has caused William so much anguish over the years.
What we discover is a tale of a childhood blighted by the death of his father when he was eight years old. William’s mother is determined that her son will not get caught up in the family’s undertaking business but instead will pursue a career in music. But her plans are thrown into chaos and the relationship with Williams is destroyed because she cannot overcome her jealousy over the boy’s relationship with two other people, her dead husband’s twin brother Robert and Robert’s partner Howard.
A Terrible Kindness is a novel about grief and forgiveness; of misplaced love and decisions that have long-lasting consequences. It’s strong on setting and the portrayal of anguish. The scenes in Aberfan are handled particularly well; portraying the immensity of the task faced by the volunteer embalmers as they wrestled to maintain professionalism in the face of unbelievable tragedy.
These chapters could so easily have been either mawkishly sentimental or too graphic but I thought Wroe skillfully avoided both traps. Yes there are descriptions of the practices followed by an embalmer, but they are not gratuitously detailed. Nor are there explicit details of the injuries suffered by the children. What we do get is a deep sense of the sensitivity, almost reverence, shown with the arrival of each small frame.
…freshly graduated … with top marks for every piece of practical and written work, William looks at what’s left of the little girl who he’s just found out is called Valerie, and realises none of it counts for anything, not a thing, unless here and now he can do his job and prepare this child’s broken body for her parents, who are right now standing on the wet pavement behind.
Despite the opening. A Terrible Kindness is not a novel about the Aberfan disaster or necessarily its aftermath. Most of the novel is actually occupied with William’s attempts to get his life back on track. In between, there are sections which rewind to his time at Cambridge where he formed a close bond with another chorister and fulfilled his potential as a singer.
I didn’t fully buy into the premise of the book about the source of William’s inability to deal with his emotions. The narrative puts it down to one event that occurred when he was about 14 years. Certainly it would have been a distressing incident for a young, impressionable boy but it didn’t seem realistic to me that it was so traumatic that it caused him to stop singing entirely.
What I did enjoy however was the way Jo Browning Wroe showed the power of music to provide solace and an escape from suffering. We’re drawn into the world of music through the famous Welsh song Myfanwy about unfulfilled love and Allegri’s setting of the Miserere and their power is evoked so beautifully I felt compelled to seek out some recordings.
The restorative power of music is most clearly shown however when William revisits Cambridge to discover his friend is the organiser of a choir formed from the city’s homeless population. William challenges the idea of men who have nothing being asked to sing about love and loss but his friend’s belief is that these are exactly the sentiments the men should be able to voice:
Just because they’ve lost everything, doesn’t mean they’ve stopped being human . … Most of them have probably thought at some point, the world was a good place. The way I see it, singing about it keeps them in touch with who they were, are, could be. ..they might have lost everything, but no one can take their voices.
A Terrible Kindness is ultimately a tale of humanity, showing how love and compassion endures even in the most difficult of situations.
A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe: Footnotes
Jo Browning Wroe grew up in a crematorium in Birmingham. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and is Creative Writing Supervisor at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. A Terrible Kindness — her debut novel — was shortlisted for the Bridport/Peggy Chapman Andrews award.
She was inspired to write the book after hearing about the volunteer embalmers at Aberfan and ” wanted to find a way to tell a story that honoured and respected both them and the families so deeply affected by the disaster.”
An article by Wroe in The New Statesman gives further insight into these volunteers and reveals the shocking fact that at the time, their work went unremarked and unacknowledged.
A Terrible Kindness will be published in the UK by Faber and Faber on January 20, 2022. Thanks to FaberandFaber for an advance copy via NetGalley in return for an honest review.