A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe: Prepare to shed tears - book review -

A third generation undertaker in Birmingham, William recently gained top qualifications as an embalmer but on an evening in October 1966, just as the celebrations get underway, a coal mine landslide in the Welsh village of Aberfan will prove a life-defining tragedy.

By Pam Norfolk
Wednesday, 19th January 2022, 3:45 pm
A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe
A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe

Since the day he was born, William Lavery has lived alongside death.

If you thought a plot centred on the terrible events in Aberfan – in which 116 children and 28 adults died when a waste tip buried the village school and surrounding homes – would be too distressing and morbid, then you might need to reconsider when you turn the pages of Jo Browning Wroe’s remarkable debut novel.

Prepare to shed tears, but also to witness the selflessness, humanity and compassion that give succour to the soul, in this exquisitely wrought story which harnesses all the unimaginable pain and suffering of that dreadful disaster but then miraculously turns it into a life-enhancing experience.

Browning Wroe possesses the rather strange credential of growing up in a crematorium and, armed with her intimate knowledge of the death industry and an MA in Creative Writing, she brings us a truly unique and redemptive exploration of the immense healing power of love, care and kindness… and something much bigger and more resonant than a fictional retelling of the horrors of Aberfan.

It’s 19-year-old William Lavery’s big night… he’s dressed up to the nines for a black-tie dinner dance organised by the Institute of Embalmers in Nottingham, and he is accompanied by his girlfriend, ‘Glorious’ Gloria Finch, who hails from an undertaking family in London.

William, who works alongside his Uncle Robert, recently qualified with flying colours and is proud to be the youngest embalmer in the country. He regards it as a ‘difficult but honourable job’ which you do for little reward beyond your own sense of satisfaction.

But just as the guests sip their drinks and await the speeches, a telegram delivers news of a tragedy, an event that is so terrible that it will shock the nation. A coal pit landslide has buried over a hundred children at a school in Aberfan.

Embalmers are needed urgently and William immediately volunteers to attend even though his uncle reminds him that it will be his first job as an embalmer and that he will see things he never forgets.

When he arrives, William is faced with harrowing and unimaginable scenes, and told in no uncertain terms: ‘We do our job. We do it well, we do it quickly and we leave… keep your head down and your heart hard. That’s your kindness.’

William has ‘a skill that nobody wants to need’ but his work that night will force him to think back to the child he once was… the boy chorister who won a scholarship to a Cambridge, the friendships he made as a boarder, the death of his father when he was only eight, the fractured relationship with his mother, and the losses he has worked so hard to forget.

But the village’s ‘brokenness’ breaks William too, leaving a grim legacy of haunting dreams full of wrecked bodies, parents’ faces and wails of grief. It seems Aberfan has ‘scooped out the core of him’ and ‘catapulted it into the wild blue yonder.’

However, compassion can have surprising consequences because, as William discovers, giving so much to others can sometimes help us heal ourselves. ‘When we go through impossible things, someone, or something, will help us, if we let them.’

It’s now over 65 years since the close-knit community of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil in south Wales, was rent asunder by the catastrophic collapse of a hillside colliery spoil tip and readers would need the hardest of hearts not to be deeply moved by Browning Wroe’s affecting story of one young man’s selfless dedication to both the dead and the living.

With the lightest of touches, and a genuine tenderness and empathy that weaves through every word and every page of the story, this exciting new author works a special brand of literary sleight of hand as she brilliantly transforms the darkness of trauma, loss and tragedy into the green shoots of hope, acceptance and new beginnings.

Friendship and family, those insoluble ties that bind us to the past and the present, are the bedrock of A Terrible Kindness, and each characters plays their part in William’s rite of passage as we watch him evolve from troubled teenager, weighed down by emotional baggage, to a man ready to use his haunting experiences as a springboard to the future.

Through the prism of past and present, Browning Wroe celebrates the different kinds of love we encounter in life… love for family, however difficult that can sometimes be, love for friends like William’s irrepressibly optimistic school pal Martin Mussey, and the love and joy that spring from finding your lifetime partner.

With its gentle pace, a golden thread of music that adds a welcome sensual beauty to the story, and an emotional intensity which lingers long after the last page has turned, this is an extraordinary, sensitive and elegant novel that promises to be one of 2022’s best debuts.

(Faber & Faber, hardback, £14.99)