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.