A Terrible Kindness
Jo Browning Wroe
Published January 20, 2022
This was a moving literary fiction novel, about the impact working as a volunteer embalmer in the aftermath of the real-life 1966 Aberfan disaster has on the life of a young man and his family. Definitely not my usual kind of read, I got this from a friend, and didn’t really know what to expect going in. I enjoyed some parts more than others, and struggled to reconcile William’s adult character with the thoughtful boy portrayed in the first half.
William Lavery has only just qualified as an embalmer, when the call goes out for volunteers to go to the small coal mining town of Aberfan, Wales. A giant slag heap has collapsed, engulfing the primary school and killing over a hundred people, mostly children. William and others help prepare the bodies for burial, but the experience leaves him traumatised and determined never to become a parent, for fear of facing the same loss. Already scarred by the early loss of his father, a difficult relationship with his mother and a devastating event in his teens, William feels most comfortable with the dead, but through the patience and kindness of those who love him, perhaps he can let go of the past and embrace life.
I’ve read reviews criticising the author for using a true life tragedy as the basis for a book, and I can imagine if you live in Wales it must still be awful to think about it, but the whole plot of the book is about William’s PTSD and perhaps a fictitious event of that magnitude wouldn’t be believable? I felt it was sensitively and respectfully done – but it happened before I was born and was not something I remember hearing about growing up. It would be like saying you shouldn’t write books about the World Wars. I actually found the first section about Aberfan was so compelling that the rest of the book suffered somewhat by comparison – I found the next part, about William’s choir school experiences, rather slow. I was more interested in the undertaking than the singing aspects! The mystery of exactly what happened to or with Martin and Evelyn was also a bit of a letdown.
The writing was skilful, even if it was third person present narration throughout, and I enjoyed the sixties setting and associated musical references. There’s a great cast of characters – I liked kindly uncle Robert and jolly irreverent school friend Martin, and admired Gloria who bravely put up with William’s sometimes awful behaviour. Many of the characters’ dilemmas would no longer be issues nowadays. While the ending was a bit cheesy, I did like how she wrapped it all up. Overall I’m rounding up from 3.5 because while I didn’t love it, I would recommend it as an original character-led story that explores a side of disasters that we don’t hear much about.