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A Terrible Kindness

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How marvellous it is when a book broadens your horizons, takes you to places you would never envisage yourself going, and provides you with an enjoyable reading experience all at the same time.    <b>A Terrible Kindness</b> by Jo Browning Wroe did all of that for me.     Horizons were broadened when I learnt about the 1966 Aberfan tragedy which resulted in the deaths of 116 children and 28 adults.  I'd never considered the life of a boy chorister boarding and training at Cambridge and I certainly never envisaged being taken into the world of an embalmer.    Granted this was all via a work of fiction but it propelled me toward an evening of Googling and YouTubing once I'd finished the book.  I truly appreciated listening to the magnificent sounds of various Cambridge choir renditions of Miserere and Myfanwy two songs regularly mentioned in the book.    However all I've mentioned so far was the icing on the cake.   The book itself was well written with interesting characters having to handle difficult situations and I was super impressed to learn this was a debut novel.

William was the main character and as the book opens he has just completed his training as an embalmer.  A celebration is in full swing when news of the terrible Aberfan tragedy is delivered and the embalmers are asked to volunteer their services.     William leaves for Wales but his days there, tending to the bodies of the children, are traumatic and have lasting repercussions in the years that follow.    This experience wasn't the only one to cause lasting repercussions in Williams life.   Some episodes from his time as a chorister resulted in major upheaval and to some extent altered the course of his adult life and indirectly led to his becoming an embalmer.

Throughout the story I regularly thought of William as a kind hearted and genuinely good boy who developed into a man with these same traits. He was loyal and he loved intensely, but he was a complex character who made a few poor judgement calls, made some uncharacteristic decisions and said some things he didn't necessarily mean in the heat of the moment.  Instead of moving on from these lapses he severely punished himself (with flow on effects for others).    His way of dealing with these situations was to sever ties rather than to mend relationships and at times I wanted to shake him.    His boyhood best friend, Martin, said it this way

<i>‘For the gentlest, most kindhearted person I know, you are extraordinarily good at making a pig’s ear of things.’</i>.....
 
whilst his mum summed it up with <i> ‘What a terrible mess we can make of our lives. There should be angel police to stop us at these dangerous moments, but there don’t seem to be. So all we’re left with, my precious son, is whether we can forgive, be forgiven, and keep trying our best.’ </i>

This was a story strong on friendship and family - albeit ones with issues which were sometimes left to fester.    It touched upon themes of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,  guilt and forgiveness, and of course thread throughout it all there was kindness. 

My congratulations and thanks to the author for her work, thanks too to the publishers Faber and Faber Ltd andNetgalley for the opportunity of reading this digital ARC in exchange for an honest review which it was my pleasure to provide.

4.5 stars on Goodreads
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I was enthralled from the first page! William immediately comes across as a self-effacing young man who has worked very hard to be the best. As he attends a celebration the news from Aberfan of the dreadful disaster is delivered and William immediately goes to offer his services. The disaster and what he experiences cause him to look back on his past and it shapes his future.
The writing is insightful, thoughtful and believable. I loved William and often wanted to shout at him, shake him, encourage him and give him a hug. The other characters around him are well described. It made me smile, it made me cry.
Can't wait to read more by this author!
Very many thanks to Netgalley/Jo Browning Wroe/Faber & Faber for a digital copy of this title. All opinions expressed are my own.
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A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe. Such an emotional read. And so beautifully written. Five stars from me.
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This was such an interesting book - I cried in the first couple of chapters and wondered if the traumatic event would be present through the book, and if so whether I could continue. 

But whilst it frames the novel and is almost the strapline, it doesn’t really figure much at all, the story is a much more personal story - which is ok. However it felt slightly that the  link to such a factual event was unnecessary and a slightly more cynical reader could feel it was there to attract attention.

The book can stand alone, and the plot itself is well thought out.
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Without a doubt, one of the most moving and thought provoking books I have read in a long time.

William is 19 and has just qualified as an embalmer when the Aberfan disaster occurred. Responding to the call for help, he immediately goes. Totally unprepared for what he is to see and experience, he is forever altered.

But William was troubled long before Aberfan. Estranged from his best friend and his mother, we know there has been trauma. But we don't discover the exact nature for quite some time.

The writing is outstanding in this wonderful novel. So many moments that make you stop reading while you digest the beauty of the words. The connection with all the characters is strong, and I certainly became so invested in their lives. I wanted joy for them all. I wanted William to find peace.

A truly special book that captured my heart.
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A wonderful read. I absolutely adored this story and the characters. It broke my heart and made me smile. Williams story was so moving and I loved following his life through the years. I thought it was beautifully written and explored a very heartbreaking event at Aberfan. I highly recommend this book!
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Anyone who remembers or has heard of the tragedy that unfolded at Aberfan will be interested in reading this book. It is beautifully written and takes such terrible events and brings light and hope from them. Must read.
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This felt like such a strange book whilst reading that initialling I was going to put it down. I’m glad I didn’t, however there are still some aspects to it that grated on me. Mainly how the disaster features only from the main characters view point, the opening chapters focus on Aberfan so detailed and harrowing that as a reader you feel thrown out of that world and very much feel displaced, it led me to feel like the author could have used any human disaster to focus on her main characters plight of trauma and PTSD. Perhaps there is some truth and research gathered in the back story, where by the character of William the volunteer Embalmer really did exist in some form in the disaster, this seems completely plausible. However I felt uneasy at how a family member of one of the victims of Aberfan would feel at the real life events being used as a fictional stage. 
Taking all of that into account, it was a very thought provoking story and dealt with the tricky themes of trauma, grief and the repercussions of living a life spent running from your past.

Thanks go to Netgalley for offering this novel up for a free impartial review.
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This book featured in the 2022 version of the influential annual Observer Best Debut Novelist feature (past years have included Natasha Brown, Caleb Azumah Nelson, Douglas Stuart, Sally Rooney and Gail Honeyman among many others) and was also picked out by the New Statesman (and others) as one of the most anticipated debuts of 2022.

I would not be surprised to see it in a number of prize lists this year – particularly perhaps the Costa, as it is a memorable, emotionally impactful as well as ultimately uplifting read.

The author gave an excellent introduction to and summary of the book in an interview with Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge where she is creative writing supervisor (having previously done an MA at the UEA in 2000 – in WG Sebald’s last year).  

"A Terrible Kindness was inspired by conversations I had with two embalmers, by then in their 70’s, who as young men had gone in 1966 as volunteers to the Aberfan disaster, when a mining waste tip, loosened by rain had careered down the Welsh mountainside and onto a small village primary school.

The story is about William Lavery, a young, newly qualified embalmer who answers the call to help. The book begins and ends in Aberfan, but in between are 17 years of William’s life, as a boy chorister in Cambridge, in London training to be an embalmer, and after Aberfan, with post-traumatic stress disorder, and his marriage in trouble, William returns to Cambridge and helps with a choir for the homeless, reconnecting with his musical roots and ultimately a return to Aberfan, to try and mend the fractured relationships in his life."

The author’s interest in undertakers first came from her childhood where she lives in a crematorium (her father was a supervisor) and learnt to admire their respectful professionalism.

I think anyone above a certain ages in the UK will be familiar with Aberfan, as it was a disaster that was and still remains seared on the national conscience due to both the huge loss of life – including 116 young children and 28 adults – and the aftermath – in particular the refusal of the National Coal Board to accept their clear corporate culpability.

The book is also I think about characters (in particular William and his mother) that try to simplify difficult and complex issues into their life into a single point of focus and resentment, and adopt a policy of avoidance as well as blame rather than forgiveness (of themselves and others).

For William’s mother – after the early death of her beloved embalmer husband – she focuses her mourning on hostility to her husband’s identical twin brother Robert and his partner (in both business and life) Howard, openly resenting the way in which Robert reminds her of her husband, how Robert and Howard seem to her to flaunt their togetherness in contrast to her own solitude and most of all the close relationship with William which excludes her (and seems to have taken over from a similarly close bond between them and her husband) and which she fears might suck William into the family business (something which becomes a greater issue for her after his nascent musical abilities are uncovered).

For Robert his resentment is focused on his mother due to a traumatic event which occurred in the College Chapel culmination of his Cantabrigian choral career – a solo performance of Miserere.  What exactly happens is only revealed towards the book’s end, but it leads to Robert breaking all ties with his mother to the despair even of those more directly impacted by the incident (Robert’s Uncle and his closest Cambridge friend Martin).  As an aside I initially felt this was an authorial misstep to withold the information about what happened in the incident from the reader when it is known to all of the book’s characters even those not there like Robert’s later wife Gloria (the daughter of another undertaking/embalming dynasty) – but I think this is so that we can first of all understand its consequences and judge for ourselves if it fits the incident (which while not doubt hugely mortifying should not have lead to a lifetime of damage).  Robert also has a horror of having children – which he ascribes to his experiences at Aberfan which leads to an eventual breach with Gloria – at around the point he rediscovers the friendship of Martin.

In the final third of the book a series of set piece scenes and important conversations cause Robert to come to terms with the hurt in his life, his anger and guilt and to start to forgive himself and others and seek to repair and heal his various broken relationships.   

Some of the scenes either slightly strain credibility or seem to involve perhaps rather too much coincidence but there is no doubt that they are powerful in their impact and in their message: there is a particularly clever scene I felt when Robert uses the recording of Miserere to convey his understanding of the hurt he has caused to his mother as well as I think starting to understand the need to forgive; and later a very powerful one in Aberfan when he realises that he does not have to stay trapped in his memories.
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I honestly don't know where to start with this book. It's not the doom and gloom you would expect to read about a story that involves an embalmer and Aberfan. It's truly beautiful, the parts based in Aberfan are written with massive empathy but also with hope. William is a wonderful character as is his best friend Martin. Williams journey from childhood to adulthood is so captivating I didn't want it to end. The author touched on so many difficult subjects yet it was a joy to read. This story will definitely pull on the heartstrings but with every page turned I smiled more and more. 
A massive 5 🌟  from me
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It is a remarkable debut, full of clever intricacies and memorable characters, but never so over worked that William’s story is not centre stage. I hesitate to use the phrase ‘must read’, but I think losing yourself in this book would be time well spent. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
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It is 21 October 1966 and nineteen-year-old William Lavery, a recently graduated embalmer, now a member of his family firm of funeral directors, is at an annual dinner dance. The primary school at Aberfan in Wales has been engulfed in the black slurry slippage from a coal mining dump on the hill behind the town. Children and adults have been killed in the school and nearby houses. Embalmers are desperately needed and an urgent call goes out to which William responds. Jo Browning Wroe's writing is fluid, the characters are tremendous and believable and the story is chock full of raw emotion. The story covers William's own family loss and his musical singing gift in one of Cambridge’s college choirs. A remarkable read.

A special thank you to Faber & Faber, Jo Browning Wroe, NetGalley and Pigeonhole for the opportunity to read. This review is my unbiased opinion.
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I am finding this a very difficult book to review. As a piece of writing, as a story, it is worthy of at least 4 stars. The characters are well-written and the handling of the experience of William, as an embalmer at the Aberfan disaster, and as someone living afterwards with the effects of that experience, is done well. But I expected much more of a focus on the events at Aberfan, and it feels like this book is being promoted as being "about" Aberfan - and it is very much not. 90% of the book is the story of William ​and I finished the book feeling that the Aberfan disaster was very much a plot device - and therein lies my difficulty in writing a review.

I wish the author had chosen a different traumatic event on which to hang William's story. The consequences for  William of having volunteered to help at Aberfan were not specific to Aberfan. His trauma could have been the result of any one of many events, real or fictitious. As far as the author addresses the Aberfan disaster, she does so sensitively, but it is almost incidental to William's story. There is almost nothing about the disaster itself, or about the experience of the people of Aberfan - those most directly affected. The book does not feel conscious enough of the Aberfan story, or of how much the Aberfan disaster is still carried on the shoulders of the community.

That is not to say there is any disrespect or exploitation shown - rather it feels like an absence of understanding of what a devastating event did to a small, insular community. I have some familiarity with the Aberfan area, and I am aware - but only as far as an outsider can be - of how that community was changed forever in 1966. The Aberfan disaster is still too raw, too deep, too much, to be used as a hook on which to hang the story of a life which was, really, only tangentially connected to it.
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A Terrible Kindness but a wonderful book!
It tells the story of William - a fomer chorister and a world class embalmer at just 19 who volunteers at the Aberfan tradegy embalming  bodies which has an long lasting impact on him.   The story goes backward and forward between William's days a chorister, his expereinces at Aberfan and current life and eplores the relationship between with his mother, his uncle and his wife.  
Such a lovely story - I loved William!
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A Terrible Kindness recalls a day in October 1966 when coal and mud slid down a Welsh mountainside and engulfed the school in the village of Aberfan. More than 100 children and scores of adults, were killed in the disaster, dug out by relatives and volunteers who worked tirelessly for days even when they knew there was no hope.

A Terrible Kindness is ultimately a tale of humanity, showing how love and compassion endure even in the most difficult of situations. This is not an easy read and can resurrect emotions if you have ever been through trauma. This is a first for me by the author and one I enjoyed and would read more of their work. The book cover is eye-catching and appealing and would spark my interest if in a bookshop. Thank you very much to the author, publisher and Netgalley for this ARC.
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A beautiful and heart-warming novel. It's structured so it opens and closes with scenes set around the Aberfan mining disaster, but the major part of the book goes from present to past, with main character William dealing with the trauma he has experienced in life. 

I thought William was a flawed but believable character - his friends and family are very tolerant of his avoidant behaviour, but he's so well written that you understand the reason people make allowances.
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Any book that references Aberfan, is going to be painful, but this is written in a very sensitive and non judgmental manner. The facts are widely known, a coal slurry tip, that towered over the village of Aberfan, became waterlogged, due to days of heavy rain, and slid downhill, engulfing the junior school at Pantglas, killing 116 children and 28 adults. 
This story looks at an aspect that is not often considered, the work of those in the funeral trade who answered the call for embalmers, morticians, coffin makers and the suppliers of embalming fluids, the need for people who were willing to help excavate all that slurry, priests and vicars, the Salvation Army who supplied endless cups of tea and refreshments, so the searchers could carry on the grim work. Some children were only identified by their clothing, as I read this, I briefly thought what it would have been like if all had been in school uniforms, but then, most junior schools didn’t have this requirement. 
Aberfan happened on 21st. October. 1966, three days before my 12th birthday. Our geography lessons at school turned to Wales and the coal fields and miners, which was a real education. Growing up in flat, rural Lincolnshire, all we knew, was that coal arrived on a horse drawn cart, in sacks. Watching the funerals on television was sobering, there was a long, black, snake like procession of coffins in hearses, and mourners in black, wending their way past ruined and partially covered buildings, but it was dignified and respectful. 
William is an unwilling hero, newly qualified as an embalmer, he answers the call and goes  to Aberfan. What he sees that day will stay with him and affects his future life. We would call it PTSD today, but then, it was just put down to shock, there wasn’t any counselling, and you just worked through it. 
The detail in some areas can be considered graphic, the embalming process was very well researched, but not portrayed in a sensational way. 
We learn more about the conflicts in Williams’s life, he was a gifted chorister, but went into the family business. 
My only niggle was some of the dates didn’t make sense! An example was that in 1966, one page has William at Cambridge, in the choir as a 10 year old. Later on 1957, William is in his second year, followed by 1961, in his final year, aged 13. I’m sure all will be rectified for publication.
I found this to be a powerful read, concentrating upon an angle not considered in other books. I visited the memorial gardens many years ago, it was a eerie experience, the wind was gently blowing, and it almost sounded like voices. A broken community pulled together in quiet dignity to mourn the dead. Tears spring unbidden to eyes, the sheer enormity of this devastating event , that could have been avoided. 
Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers, Faber and Faber for my digital copy, in exchange for my honest, unsolicited review. 
A five star read. I will post to Goodreads and other outlets later.
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A Terrible Kindness feels like two books merged into one. It starts with the Aberfan disaster. A shocking and emotional read discovering the horrors of being a volunteer in the aftermath. We then get to know William, find out about how he arrived there, and his time after Aberfan. This is a much slower pace and a complex piecing together of who he is as a person in a coming of age story. We lose Aberfan for the majority of the book to focus on William himself. I was left wanting more Aberfan; the survivors and the families who rebuilt their lives. I wanted to hear their story.
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4.5 Stars

Part historical fiction, this is a truly beautiful, intimate, and very human story of tragedy, love lost and rediscovered, friendship, professional duty and emotional toil. It is sensitively written, and in my opinion, at least, not at all exploitative as some readers have claimed. 

We follow the life of William as he struggles with the mental anguish of several traumatic incidents from his past, and we experience his yearning to reconcile the ghosts that have burdened him for so long. The author skillfully captures the mind of a ‘damaged’ character who is rather shy and sensitive yet ‘terribly kind’. He’s in need of friendship, sympathy, healing and care in equal measure. 

As a native of South Wales, the events, language, camaraderie, characters, and settings resonated with me. The actual horrific events upon which the story is based were conveyed sympathetically and delicately. Don’t be put off by the apparent ‘heavy’ subject matter. Debut author Jo Browning Wroe weaves a realistic narrative that is never cloying and one that ultimately delivers a message of hope.

At times the plot did flit around and was a little less ‘linear’ than it might otherwise have been, which lessened the pace a tad in the middle of the book, especially. Also, I often wondered why the women in William’s life - his mother and girlfriend, remained steadfastly loyal and loving despite his relatively frequent vitriolic jibes, unconventional behaviour and mood swings. I’d wager in reality; few would have hung around. But these were minor observations in what was otherwise a profoundly emotional, moving and enjoyable read.    

My thanks as ever to NetGalley and Faber & Faber for this e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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I am sitting here with red itchy eyes having ugly cried my way through this impressively touching and brilliantly written story based on the true-life tragedy of Aberfan. I found this incredibly difficult to put down and finished it in just over 24 hours. This had me up till late and has barely left my hands for most of the day!

This plot focuses on a fictional character William, who volunteers with the embalming process for the victims. I do not have any knowledge of this skill, so I am unable to comment on the realism, however, despite William's flaws, he is incredibly likable. The impact that this event has on him is very apparent, and the author takes the reader on a remarkably emotional ride. 

Be prepared for a heart-wrenching beginning, which is harrowing. The author has clearly carried out intense research for this, and I commend that. To write this could not have been easy. Despite the sadness surrounding this sensitive topic and other matters discussed within it's pages, this was a great read and I enjoyed it immensely. It will be a book that I will find hard to forget. 

Can not recommend this enough, although be careful when reading in public - will induce tears!
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