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.

Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper

Silver on the Tree is the fifth and final book in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence and although I’m sorry to have come to the end of the series, I enjoyed every minute of it. This particular novel is the perfect finale, bringing together all the characters and storylines from the first four books as we head towards the great, decisive battle between the forces of the Dark and the Light. If you are new to the series, I would recommend starting with the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone; don’t start with this one, or I think you’ll be very confused!

Silver on the Tree, like the previous book The Grey King, is set mostly in Wales, where Will Stanton and his friend Bran Davies are searching for the mysterious Lady who holds the knowledge that will set the final part of their quest in motion.

‘Until the Lady comes,’ Merriman said. ‘And she will help you to the finding of the sword of the Pendragon, the crystal sword by which the final magic of the light shall be achieved, and the Dark put at last to flight. And there will be five to help you, for from the beginning it was known that six altogether, and six only, must accomplish this long matter. Six creatures more and less of the earth, aided by the six Signs’.

Will and Bran, together with their wise, elderly mentor Merriman Lyon, make up three of the six who are needed to complete the quest. The other three are Simon, Jane and Barney, the Drew children who appeared in some of the earlier novels and who happen to be visiting Wales with their parents. The six are soon united and each has a part to play in the adventures to come.

The Arthurian elements which were introduced in the previous books are stronger here – we finally meet King Arthur himself; there’s a glimpse of the Battle of Badon, the conflict between the Britons and Anglo-Saxons in which he was said to be involved; and there are appearances by other characters who sometimes appear in Arthurian legend, such as Gwion (or Taliesin) the bard. Welsh folklore also plays a part and the children have some chilling encounters with creatures such as the afanc, a Welsh lake monster, and a terrifying horse known as the Mari Lwyd! These are both used as agents of the Dark, along with the more commonplace but equally sinister (in this context) black mink and polecat.

The fantasy sequences in the novel are very well done, particularly an episode where Will and Bran travel through the Lost Lands in search of the crystal sword and meet the legendary king, Gwyddno Garanhir. Meanwhile, the Drew children find themselves transported through time, to a 19th century shipyard and then to the Welsh stronghold of Owain Glyndwr. Back in the ‘real world’, we are reacquainted with the other members of the Stanton family, mainly Will’s brothers, Stephen and James, who have an unpleasant encounter with a racist bully. This part of the story felt out of place at first, but I think it was intended to show how the Dark can find its way into the world through those who are susceptible to evil. Will reflects later that maybe ‘the Dark can only reach people at extremes – blinded by their own shining ideas, or locked up in the darkness of their own heads’.

I still have the same complaint I had after reading some of the previous books – that the tasks are solved too easily and the correct solutions just ‘come’ to Will and the others without them having to put too much effort into it. However, I know this series is intended for younger readers, so maybe I was expecting too much. Apart from that, I loved Silver on the Tree and the whole of The Dark is Rising and just wish I could have discovered these books as a child!

The Grey King by Susan Cooper

This is the fourth book in Susan Cooper’s five-volume sequence, The Dark is Rising, and I feel as though things are starting to fall nicely into place ahead of the fifth and final book, Silver on the Tree. I’m beginning to form a better understanding of the opposing forces of the Light and the Dark and how the various characters and elements of the series have their roots in Arthurian legend and British folklore. However, this book also raises new questions and explores issues and topics not yet touched upon in the earlier novels, so there’s still a long way to go before the end!

The Grey King begins with Will Stanton, the eleven-year-old boy – and ‘Old One’ – we met in The Dark is Rising and Greenwitch, going to stay with an aunt and uncle in Wales while recuperating from hepatitis. His parents hope it will be a nice, relaxing break for him, but it turns out to be just the opposite! During Will’s illness, he has forgotten the details of the quest begun in the previous novels, but as his memories slowly return he remembers that his next task is to find the golden harp that will awaken six sleepers who will join the final battle between Dark and Light.

The three Drew children, who played such important roles in Over Sea, Under Stone and Greenwitch, don’t appear in this book, but Will receives help this time from a new friend, Bran, a boy he meets in the Welsh hills. With his white hair and pale skin, as well as a mystery surrounding the disappearance of his mother, Bran has never fitted in with other children and leads a lonely, solitary life with only his beloved dog, Cafall, for company. When Will learns that Bran is ready to help him with the next stage of the quest, a bond forms between the two and they set out together to find the harp and wake the sleepers.

The villain this time is the Brenin Llwyd, or the ‘Grey King’, an ancient and powerful Lord of the Dark who lives high in the mountains, his breath forming a ragged grey mist that can be seen for miles around. Although Will and Bran have little direct contact with the Grey King for most of the book, they are aware of his presence all around them and of the work of his agents, the bitter and spiteful farmer, Caradog Prichard, and the powerful grey foxes known as the Milgwn. Like the other books in the series, this one is wonderfully eerie and atmospheric, and while the Dark continues to feel evil and malevolent, we are again made to question how ‘good’ the Light really is:

Those men who know anything at all about the Light also know that there is a fierceness to its power, like the bare sword of the law, or the white burning of the sun…Other things, like humanity, and mercy, and charity, that most good men hold more precious than all else, they do not come first for the Light…At the centre of the Light there is a cold white flame, just as at the centre of the Dark there is a great black pit bottomless as the Universe.

As with The Dark is Rising, I felt that the mission was completed much too easily (I was particularly disappointed with a game of riddles, as very little effort went into solving them). The tasks that have faced the Drew children seem to be more difficult and dangerous somehow, maybe because they are ‘ordinary’ children and don’t have the powers that Will has. However, the quest is only one aspect of the novel and there are other elements that interested me as much or more. I particularly loved the Welsh setting – and was grateful for the lesson in Welsh pronunciation Will receives early in the novel! I also enjoyed getting to know Bran and discovering how he fits into the overall story.

I’m looking forward to reading Silver on the Tree and finding out how it all ends!

Book 4 for R.I.P. XVI

The Drowned Court by Tracey Warr

This is the second of a trilogy of novels telling the story of the Welsh princess Nest ferch Rhys. I read the first book, Daughter of the Last King, in 2017 and enjoyed learning about this little-known historical figure, so a few weeks ago I decided it was time I picked up the next volume and continued Nest’s story.

In Daughter of the Last King, Nest’s father – the king of Deheubarth – is killed in battle and the twelve-year-old Nest is taken captive. The novel goes on to describe her years of captivity in the household of the powerful Montgommery family and the eventual downfall of that family, her time as mistress to King Henry I and her marriage to Gerald Fitzwalter, the Norman castellan of Pembroke Castle.

Book two, The Drowned Court, begins in the year 1107 and we see that Nest has been settling into married life with Gerald. Although he is not the husband she would have chosen, Nest is growing fond of Gerald and the couple already have several half-Norman/half-Welsh children. However, Nest still can’t stop thinking about Owain ap Cadwgan, the Welsh prince of Powys to whom she had once been betrothed. It seems that Owain has not forgotten her either, but the time for him to come to her rescue has long passed; if he enters her life again now it can only cause trouble for Nest and her family. Meanwhile, her brother Gruffudd ap Rhys, is gathering support in an attempt to reclaim his kingdom, putting further strain on Nest’s loyalties as she becomes torn between her Welsh past and her Norman present.

As in the first book, Nest’s story alternates with the story of Sister Benedicta, a nun at Almenêches in Normandy whose brother, the Flemish knight Haith, is in the service of Nest and Gerald. Benedicta is a fictitious character and played a fairly minor role in the previous book; she is much more prominent in this one as her skills as a scribe earn her a place in a network of spies run by Henry I’s sister, Adela of Blois. Writing part of the novel from Benedicta’s point of view allows Tracey Warr to explore some of the political developments taking place in Europe which would have been out of the range of Nest’s own experience, but I have to admit that I never felt fully engaged with these sections of the book and was always glad to get back to Nest’s more personal story.

I knew nothing at all about Nest ferch Rhys before reading these books and I have resisted looking up the details of her life, so I never had any idea what was going to happen next and could just enjoy watching her story unfold and knowing that I was learning something new along the way. However, this also means that I can’t really comment on the historical accuracy. All I can say is that the book does feel as though it has been well researched, but as very little is known about Nest anyway, a lot of imagination has obviously had to be used to fill in the gaps between the historical facts.

The final book in the trilogy is not available yet but it will be called The Anarchy. I’m looking forward to reading it and seeing how Nest’s story concludes.

How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn

This month Paula at Book Jotter is hosting Dewithon, a readathon celebrating literature by and about writers from Wales. I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to read How Green Was My Valley, a book from my Classics Club list, so I was surprised and disappointed to find that there is some controversy over whether or not Richard Llewellyn can be considered a Welsh author (although his parents were Welsh, he was apparently actually born in England, despite claiming to be born in Wales). I decided to read it anyway and am glad I did because I loved it and it seemed to me that Llewellyn must have identified strongly with Wales and its people, even though he didn’t grow up there.

The book was published in 1939 but is set several decades earlier, towards the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, which is something else I hadn’t realised at first. Exact dates are not given, but there are a few clues and references to historical events that provide some indication of the time period. The story is narrated by Huw Morgan, whose family live in a coal mining community in the valleys of South Wales. Huw is only a child at the beginning of the novel, watching his older brothers go off to work in the mine with their father; he expects that one day he will follow in their footsteps, but his academic ability opens up at least the possibility of doing something else. Huw’s school days are not easy – despite his success in the classroom, he is bullied both by the other boys and by his teacher – but at home he receives plenty of guidance and advice, of various sorts, from his family and friends.

Huw’s recollections of his childhood are full of nostalgia and affection, but there is always a sense that danger and tragedy could be just around the corner and we know that Huw’s valley was perhaps not as ‘green and bright’ as he remembers it. This is symbolised by the descriptions of the slag heap which is growing larger by the year as more and more of the earth is mined, casting a shadow over the valley as it spreads and threatening to engulf the houses below (it was hard not to think here of the Aberfan disaster of 1966). Mining is an integral part of the lives of the Morgan family and the rest of the community, so while it is a constant source of conflict throughout the novel – Huw’s father and brothers become involved in strikes, the formation of unions and protests against the sliding scale of pay – it is also an important source of employment and income.

Everything that happens in the book feels realistic and Llewellyn adds to the authenticity by trying to capture the patterns and cadences of Welsh speech both in the dialogue and in Huw’s narration (though maybe someone from Wales who has read the book can tell me whether it’s as accurate as it sounded to me). The story itself seems very autobiographical and I could have easily believed that Huw’s experiences were drawn from the author’s own life. I was surprised, then, to find that not only was Llewellyn not born in St Davids as he claimed, he also didn’t come from a mining background and was more likely to have carried out his research for the book by talking to miners rather than by going down the mines himself.

Anyway, this is a beautifully written novel with characters I came to love and care about, particularly Huw himself, his beloved sister-in-law Bronwen, who is such a big influence on him from early childhood onwards, and his sister Angharad, faced with choosing between two different men and two different ways of life. At first I thought it was going to be a long, slow read, but as I gradually became more and more engrossed in Huw’s story the pages started to fly by much more quickly than I’d expected. I’m not sure if I’ll look for any of the sequels, which don’t seem to be as highly regarded, but I’m so glad I read this one and got to know Huw and the Morgan family.

Historical Musings #48: The Welsh Edition

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction!

This month Paula of The Book Jotter is hosting her first ever Wales Readathon* (also known as Dewithon 19). I have started to read How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn but I’m not sure if I’ll have time to finish it and write a review before the end of March so, as I do still want to participate in some way, I thought it would be interesting to devote this month’s Historical Musings post to Welsh historical fiction.

I’m listing below some of the historical novels set in Wales that I’ve already read and written about on my blog (some are by Welsh authors and some are not), but I’d love to hear your recommendations too.

Starting with the book set in the earliest time period, Daughter of the Last King by Tracey Warr takes us back to 11th century Wales and introduces us to Nest ferch Rhys, daughter of the last king of Deheubarth. I have the sequel, The Drowned Court, on my shelf to read soon.

Then there’s Sharon Penman’s Welsh Princes Trilogy, which begins with Here Be Dragons, the story of Llewelyn ab Iorweth (known as Llewelyn the Great) and his wife Joanna, an illegitimate daughter of England’s King John. The second book in the trilogy, Falls the Shadow, is set several years later and tells the parallel stories of Simon de Montfort’s rebellion against Henry III and, in Wales, the rivalries between Llewelyn’s sons and grandsons. I still need to read the final book, The Reckoning.

A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters, the first in her Cadfael mystery series, involves a journey to a Welsh village to bring back a saint’s relics to Shrewsbury Abbey.

Sleeper’s Castle by Barbara Erskine is a time slip novel set in Hay-on-Wye, close to the border between England and Wales. The historical thread of the story involves a young woman who becomes caught up in Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion against the rule of Henry IV of England.

In First of the Tudors, Joanna Hickson looks at the Welsh origins of the Tudor dynasty, with a focus on Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, uncle of the future Henry VII.

The Child From the Sea by Elizabeth Goudge is a beautifully written novel about Lucy Walter, a mistress of King Charles II and the mother of his eldest son, the Duke of Monmouth. Lucy grows up at Roch Castle, on the Pembrokeshire coast, and her Welsh childhood is described in vivid detail.

My Beautiful Imperial by Rhiannon Lewis begins in 19th century Wales with a young boy dreaming of a life at sea before developing into a fascinating novel about the Chilean civil war.

Moving forward into the 20th century, I remember enjoying Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers by Mari Strachan (renamed simply Dead Man’s Embers since I read it a few years ago). The book is set in the 1920s and follows the story of a woman whose husband returns home to Wales after the First World War suffering from shell shock.

I found all of the books mentioned above interesting in different ways and would recommend any of them. But now it’s your turn…

Have you read any of these books? Can you think of any other good historical fiction novels set in Wales?

* It’s also Reading Ireland Month – you can see my earlier post on Irish historical fiction here.

The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

I haven’t read as many of the British Library Crime Classics as a lot of the other bloggers I follow, but of the few that I have read this one is the best so far. It’s not really a whodunnit so there’s no puzzle to solve or clues to decipher, but that doesn’t matter at all – the fun is in wondering whether the crime described in the novel will succeed and, if so, whether the culprit will be caught.

Our narrator, Edward Powell, is a self-obsessed, miserable and bitter young man who lives with his Aunt Mildred in a small Welsh village with a name (Llwll) he finds impossible to pronounce. With his little Pekingese dog and love of French novels, Edward feels out of place in Llwll and longs to move to somewhere more lively and fashionable. Unfortunately, being financially dependent on his aunt, it seems that he will have to stay where he is for now…unless he can think of another solution.

Given the title of the book, I’m sure you will have guessed what Edward’s solution is! Now, under normal circumstances I would be horrified at the thought of somebody plotting to murder his aunt, but I did have some sympathy for Edward as Aunt Mildred is portrayed as such a thoroughly unpleasant woman. She constantly criticises him, complains about everything he says or does, and goes to great lengths to make him look stupid in front of the entire village. Had Edward been a nicer person I could almost have given him my support, but he is no more likeable than she is – he’s lazy, selfish, and believes he is much cleverer than he actually is. Needless to say, the murder of his aunt proves to be more difficult than he expected!

Will Edward’s plans succeed? Obviously, I’m not going to tell you and will leave you to enjoy the story for yourself, but what I will say is that things don’t go smoothly and there are plenty of twists and turns before we reach the end. But the plot is only part of what makes this book so enjoyable; Edward’s narrative voice is wonderful too and transforms what could have been a very dark novel into a very funny one. From the beginning, when he spends the whole of the first page trying to explain how to pronounce Llwll, there is a strong thread of humour running throughout the entire story which is why, despite Edward and his aunt being such unlikeable people, their battle of wits is so entertaining to read.

As well as being funny, there’s also a sense that Edward’s narration could be unreliable. Is he correctly interpreting people and situations? Is Aunt Mildred really as horrible as he thinks she is or is his own negative view of the world distorting the way he sees her? Although this isn’t a mystery in the conventional sense, there’s still plenty of suspense as we wonder whether our questions will be answered, and when – and how – the murder of Edward’s aunt will take place.

The Murder of My Aunt was Richard Hull’s first novel, published in 1934. Having enjoyed it so much, I am looking forward to reading more of his books. Excellent Intentions is also a British Library Crime Classic, while a few others have been reissued by Agora Books. Have you read any of them?