A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe

The Welsh village of Aberfan is a place many of us associate with the 1966 mining disaster where a landslide of coal waste collapsed onto the village school, killing 116 children and 28 adults. Among the many volunteers who arrived in Aberfan to help deal with the aftermath of the tragedy were several hundred embalmers. A Terrible Kindness imagines the story of one of these embalmers, the fictional William Lavery.

William is just nineteen years old and newly qualified when the disaster happens, but he works tirelessly alongside older and more experienced embalmers to help identify and tend to the bodies of the victims. Not surprisingly, this will have a profound effect on him and leave him psychologically damaged for years to come. It also brings back memories of other traumatic moments that occurred earlier in William’s life – including one particular incident that led to the breakdown of his relationship with his mother. This incident is only hinted at throughout the book and it’s not until the final chapters that we find out what happened.

The Aberfan disaster is something that is still within living memory for a lot of people, so it’s important that authors handle things like this with care and sensitivity – and I think Jo Browning Wroe does this very well. These scenes are naturally very sad and moving, but also filled me with admiration for these people who voluntarily carried out such an unpleasant, difficult but essential task. However, Aberfan is only the starting point for William’s story and apart from two or three chapters, the rest of the book is set elsewhere.

A lot of time is spent on William’s years as a young chorister at a choir school in Cambridge, the friendships he made there and the events that made him abandon his promising singing career and go into the family embalming business instead. The complex relationships between William, his mother, his uncle and his uncle’s partner are also explored and this is the real focus of the book rather than what happened at Aberfan. I did have a lot of sympathy for William, who was clearly struggling, but I wished he had been able to get help and find a way to move on rather than making life so unhappy for himself and his loved ones for so many years. His mother, Evelyn, also frustrated me with her inability to consider other people as well as herself and I felt that the revelation of the incident that caused her estrangement from William was a bit of an anticlimax.

I think the inclusion of the Aberfan storyline will draw a lot of readers to this book, but will also put other readers off and I do wonder whether a fictional tragedy would have served the purpose of the plot just as well. As an exploration of grief and forgiveness, though, it’s an excellent read and an impressive first novel by Jo Browning Wroe.

Thanks to Pigeonhole for the opportunity to read this book.

This is book 2/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

19 thoughts on “A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    I only have vague memories of Aberfan (being just 6 at the time). This is certainly a brave subject to tackle in fiction so its good to hear that the author handled it so well. I might look out for it…

    • Helen says:

      I’m not old enough, but I can see that it could be difficult to read about for those who remember it well. It’s not the main focus of the book, but I think it will be of interest to some readers and off-putting to others.

  2. Pam Thomas says:

    I can clearly remember Aberfan, I wasn’t much older than the children who died. I have grave reservations about authors who write about such tragedies – the Holocaust is another example – because it seems like exploitation, unless you have your own or someone else’s true story to tell. And I’d already decided that I wouldn’t be reading this, it feels far too awful and close to home. I wonder what the bereaved families think of it.

    • Helen says:

      As I said in my review, although I thought those parts of the book were well written, I don’t think it was necessary to include such a controversial subject, especially as it wasn’t really a book about Aberfan anyway – it was about someone trying to overcome personal traumas, so any kind of fictional disaster would have worked.

  3. Pam Thomas says:

    I agree, Helen, this may be an unfair opinion, but there’s part of me which wonders if Aberfan was chosen in an attempt to grab attention. As you say, a fictional disaster would probably have been preferable. There are people alive who went through all that dreadful trauma, and will have vivid and awful memories of it, and I don’t think this book will help.

  4. heavenali says:

    Aberfan happened a couple of years before I was born, yet I first heard about it when I was a child. The crown episode about it was very powerful. This book sounds extremely poignant, but perhaps it was unnecessary to write a novel about it, given how many people still living would have been affected by it.

  5. setinthepast says:

    It was before I was born, but still talked about when I was young. It’s a sensitive topic to include in a book … if it was by someone who had personal connections to Aberfan, or who’d spoken to survivors and was writing on their behalf, I could understand it, but I’m a bit uneasy about this.

    • Helen says:

      The author grew up in a crematorium and said she wanted to highlight the work of the embalmers at Aberfan, but it actually forms such a small part of the book it doesn’t feel essential to the plot.

  6. piningforthewest says:

    I was only seven then but I remember it all clearly, I was keen on the TV news and newspapers despite being young, so I would avoid this one, whereas if it had been something similar but fictional I might have read it.

    • Helen says:

      It’s a shame because I thought she handled the Aberfan parts of the book quite well, but it’s such a sensitive subject it will probably put off as many readers as it attracts.

  7. joulesbarham says:

    I must admit I am put off this book because of the Aberfan section. I can just about remember the atmosphere in my family at the time – some of my cousins actually turned up to try to help with the rescue as they were local miners at the time. It’s a shame because I would have enjoyed the Cambridge choir school element.

    • Helen says:

      There’s actually a lot more focus on the choir school than there is on Aberfan, but I can see how those parts of the book would put people off – especially anyone with clear memories or a personal connection.

  8. FictionFan says:

    Yes, using Aberfan would put me off what otherwise sounds like an interesting book. I remember the shock and distress of the adults around me more than the actual details of the event, since I was very young at the time. I often wish fiction writers would stick to fiction, especially with fairly recent events or people.

    • Helen says:

      It’s a shame because I thought this was an excellent book, but Aberfan is still a sensitive subject for a lot of people and it would probably have been best if she’d avoided it.

  9. Liz Dexter says:

    Hm, that does put me off – I have worked on a book of Welsh history recently that covered its effect on a lot of people still living, and however careful it is, I think novelising it might not be a great idea. But thank you for sharing about this book.

    • Helen says:

      I thought she handled the Aberfan sections in a sensitive way, but I did wonder how people who had been personally affected would feel about it. I can see why a lot of readers would be put off.

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