Cover Image: A Terrible Kindness

A Terrible Kindness

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date:

Member Reviews

This just broke my heart. Anything about the Aberfan disaster is going to be a heart wrenching of course. This novel is beautifully written following William- a mortician who is called in following the disaster. Showing the affect this had on Williams life this is a beautiful story that everyone should read.
Was this review helpful?
We follow the life of William, a talented chorister in his youth, and now a newly qualified embalmer. At 19 he volunteers to help in the aftermath of the Aberfan Disaster and we follow his journey from then. 
Although I didn’t find this a brilliant, challenging novel, it is a compelling, emotional read. It tackles the themes of family, grief, love and kindness in a sensitive way and the characters are well-drawn: flawed but real. The details about embalming and music are interesting  and the writing about Aberfan is strikingly beautiful but other parts of the story seemed a bit cliched by comparison, and left me a little underwhelmed. 
All in all, A Terrible Kindness is well worth reading but perhaps wasn’t the book for me. Don’t let that put you off! 

Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for the ARC. All views are my own.
Was this review helpful?
A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe is based on the horrific disaster which occurred, in the coal mining village of Aberfan, Wales on 21 October 1966.  Embalmers were the unsung heroes of Aberfan, with volunteers rushing to the small Welsh village to ensure that the 116 children and 28 adults who perished were cleaned, identified and embalmed to keep them from deteriorating and thus saving their loved ones from further distress.

This book follows the fictitious character of William Lavery, from his young life as a chorister in Cambridge, through to him working for the family business as an embalmer which led him to Aberfan, right after he first qualified.  The story jumps from 1966 and Aberfan, back to when William was a child and then forward again as he learns how to deal with the aftermath of the tragedy he witnessed and how it affected his life moving forward.

It has been clear from the book, that Jo Browning Wroe has carried out a great deal of research on the role of the embalmers at Aberfan, and how many suffered with their mental health and the effects  such a tragic disaster can have on a person but also on their friends and family surrounding them.  

I related personally to places in the book as, like the author, I grew up in Birmingham and I went on my holidays to South Wales every year, staying just outside Mumbles in a road just off Plunch Lane!  

Sensitively written, I can thoroughly recommend A Terrible Kindness to anyone who is interested in the role the embalmers had in Aberfan but also to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.

Thank you to NetGalley and Faber and Faber for the opportunity to read and review an ARC of A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe.
Was this review helpful?
This book brought back lots of memories and feelings of how it mustve been for those at the time. Well written  lovely emotional book
Was this review helpful?
A Terrible Kindness opens with William Lavery at a celebration of him becoming the youngest embalmer to pass his training. It should be a defining moment in his career, and it is…but not for the reasons we might think.
During the course of the evening, news filters through about an awful event that has taken place in Aberfan. The school has been buried, and many lives have been lost. Embalmers are needed to help with the identification of the dead, and the preparation of their bodies. William volunteers, and it becomes a night that he cannot forget.
The portrayal of a community suffering was done sensitively. Accounts of this tragedy are many, and there will be some that offer more factual detail. However, this setting is more of a backdrop for us, helping to explain the way our character develops. After the start, it remains a moment that helps to shape William but is not really addressed until much later.
Having had such a monumental start to his career, we then learn a little more of William’s past. We see how his background helped shape the man he becomes, and we are - very slowly - given the details that help us to understand the significance of some of the events we witness.
I found William something of a strange character, but the gradual peeling back of his layers was very natural. Learning about his childhood as a chorister was both entertaining and moving, and the descriptions of the role music played in his life was powerful. There was plenty of detail given about the embalming process (perhaps a little more than I might have wished to know) but I found myself struck by the kindness and care shown by William to those he works with. The latter stages, where William has his breakthrough moments, we’re awash with acts of kindness and compassion that has me tearing up, it never felt mawkish or overly sentimental.
As the book moves towards the end, we know William is going to have to face his ghosts. This is not easy by any means, and yet there was a beautiful sense of a man learning to accept himself and his situation. 
Thanks to the author for this sensitive exploration of the human condition, and thanks to the publishers for giving me the opportunity to read it in advance of publication.
Was this review helpful?
William is a truly unforgettable character and this is a book bursting with sympathy nd love. The tragedy at Aberfan is dealt with very respectfully, and the characters in the story are rounded and well explored. I found the mixed timelines a little obtrusive and artificial but overall this is an engaging novel, filled with hope
Was this review helpful?
A story both tender and harrowing, told with compassion. Balanced between conveying the realities of a horrific disaster while avoiding being insensitive or dramatic.  

William is a newly qualified embalmer, and at nineteen years old, he is the youngest in the country. During a black tie event celebrating his graduation, a devastating announcement is made: volunteer embalmers are desperately needed to help in the aftermath of the Aberfan disaster. A coal waste landslide buried everything in its path, including Pantglas Junior School. The fact that this is based on a real event makes these chapters deeply painful. William is a quiet volunteer, who slips in to offer the only kindness he can give the dead, his respect and care. He does not expect his first job to haunt him as this one will.

This is a difficult read at times, which is something to be aware of before picking up this book. The narration doesn’t shy away from the realities of what volunteers would have witnessed, identifying the bodies of children, and the unimaginable loss of the families. While most of the book is set away from Aberfan over the following years, William struggles to process what he has seen, and this triggers other memories to resurface. The past and present day narratives, and how previous events affect his adult life, weave together in an easy to follow way. The echos and contrasts in William’s life build, keeping each event a mystery until it’s ready to surface. While Aberfan is not the primary focus for much of the book, the tragedy has repercussions throughout William’s life, even as an outsider to the town. 

This story is unusual in its focus on the undertaking and embalming family business. It’s not a subject that many people think about. William offers a glimpse into the often overlooked aspect of life and death, and the compassion, patience and strength of those who care for the dead. This aspect of the book could easily be too graphic, or over sentimental, but it is handled sensitively and with respect.

While this is a book about tragedy and trauma, broken families and regret, it is also a book about love, forgiveness and healing. It is a heavy and difficult read, especially the first section which focuses on the aftermath of disaster. This skilfully crafted debut intertwines very different narrative threads into something that makes perfect sense as a whole. It is a deeply affecting book which closely follows a character struggling with PTSD and a life which has fallen apart in many different ways. 

This book was reviewed by Cathy.

With thanks to Faber & Faber and NetGalley for an advance copy of this book. All opinions in this review are my own. 

Shelves: General Fiction (Adult); January 2022
Was this review helpful?
William has just qualified top of his class as an embalmer. At a swanky dinner celebrating successes in the business those present hear that there has been a terrible accident in Wales. The slag heap has slipped in Aberfan engulfing the primary school. Embalmers are urgently needed to assist with the victims. William is determined to go. What he experiences will never leave him. As a young boy William was a chorister at Cambridge- much to the delight of his widowed mother who was set against him joining the family business, set up by his dead father, his father's twin  Robert & his friend Howard. His mother dislikes the two men intensely & he feels torn between the two. He enjoyed being a chorister & made a good friend in Martin. When his choir time is cut short he eventually chooses his uncle.

The author gradually tells William's story, answering the questions  that the reader asks. I wanted to shake William but he was a man of his time, there was no counselling for him- something he really needed. It was a wonderful read & I was sorry to leave these people I had become so involved with. Thanks to Netgalley & the publisher for letting me read & review this book
Was this review helpful?
A beautiful book about the long-lasting effects of trauma on the body and emotions. It flits between time-frames so well and is very engaging.
Was this review helpful?
A Terrible Kindness, Jo Browning Wroe’s debut novel, tells the story of William Lavery, a young man who gives up a promising musical career to join the family undertaking business as an embalmer, and is called upon to assist at one of the nation’s most tragic and poignant disasters.

The novel opens with William attending a professional dinner when word reaches the assembled undertakers that a terrible disaster has occurred in Wales and embalmers are required to assist with the bodies of the young victims. William immediately volunteers and drives through the night to provide assistance and support. The disaster was Aberfan, where 116 young children and their teachers were killed when their school was engulfed by a landslide of colliery waste. This tragic and traumatic event would come to haunt William and have a profound effect on the rest of his life.

Throughout the book we see flashbacks to William’s childhood when he was a promising Cambridge chorister but his homelife was difficult following the death of his father and William was caught in the middle of a battle of wills between uncle who wanted him to take his father’s place in the family business and his grieving mother who was desperate for him to escape and pursue a career in music.

It's a very gentle and observant book focuses on William and his family rather than the Aberfan disaster itself, and the horrific events that William experienced there are dealt with sensitively and respectfully. It’s very evocative in terms of 1960s and 70s period detail and some very likable characters. It was hard to believe it was a debut novel and I really look forward to reading more by this author.
Was this review helpful?
Jo Browning Wroe's 'A Terrible Kindness' is a harrowing and thoroughly moving portrayal of the life of William Lavery. At the beginning, we see him at the age of nineteen graduating top of the class from embalming college and answering the call to assist at the coal heap tragedy in Aberfan. As he embalms the bodies of children pulled from the crushed primary school, we see his gentle and kind work amongst the horrors of the death and destruction wrought on this small community. William and his fellow embalmers using scraps of clothing to identify the bodies highlighted from the very start how very stark the tragedy and trauma of this book was going to be throughout.

The Aberfan tragedy is only a portion of the story, bookending the narrative as we move through William's childhood as a chorister, exploring the way childhood trauma and the Aberfan disaster haunt him and shape his future. Each new section of this non-linear narrative reveals a fresh layer of William's personality. At first, he is merely a gentle man helping out in an impossible situation. However, every new phase of builds him into a complex and disturbed character, struggling to process and move past his trauma.

It becomes more difficult to sympathise with William as he makes self-centred decisions in the name of 'saving' the people around him, both in the past and following his experiences in Aberfan. This is what makes his character arc so satisfying by the close of the novel. I also relished his interactions with his childhood chorister friend Martin and his love Gloria. They were strong personalities who William desperately needed in his life to love him but also give him difficult home truths when needed.

Overall, this is an emotional story of family drama and loss, bookended by the Aberfan disaster and the wide reaching impact of the trauma for all involved. It is a well written and absorbing story which I would highly recommend. 5 stars.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher who provided an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Was this review helpful?
Set partially in the aftermath of the Aberfan disaster, this is ultimately a book about grief, friendship, love, loss and decisions that have long-lasting consequences. There are some harrowing moments but they are balanced with hope, love & forgiveness.

The story is set across a number of timelines, and centre round William. We see him as a schoolboy chorister in Cambridge, a newly qualified undertaker/embalmer and several years later as an adult struggling to come to terms with his own past & what we’d probably today call PTSD. 
Alongside William, we also have his schoolfriend Martin (both annoying and lovable!), Williams mother (grief striken, confused, jealous), “uncle Robert” and his partner Howard (caring, loyal, but homosexual when it was still illegal) and Gloria (loving, loyal, but with hurts of her own). The relationships 

There is an underlying storyline about the power of music, and there is a repetition of the Welsh song Myfanwy, and Allegris Miserere (not a piece I was familiar with). We see that music can evoke both painful & happy memories but can also bridge gaps and bring people together. 

The portions of the book set in Aberfan are incredibly sensitively done yet do not minimalise the horrors that young William would have faced embalming the children who died that day. I do have some questions about whether the inclusion of the Aberfan story was strictly necessary – could a similar result have been obtained by William embalming a number of children who’d died in another way (a car accident? A house fire?). The author has clearly done intensive research, but by the end of the book I was feeling that there was something slightly sensationalist in the inclusion of this. 
The book has left me with a much greater understanding of the work done by the “unknown volunteers” after the Aberfan, and no doubt other disasters. The title of “A Terrible Kindness” is very fitting …
Was this review helpful?
I had no idea what this simple yet beautiful cover held but something about it promised a thoughtful, tender story. It really delivered on those expectations and I finished it with a heart full of hope. 

William Lavery has just graduated as an embalmer and is about to go into the family business. But a tragic disaster in the small Welsh mining town of Aberfan prompts William to kick off his career immediately. The horrors he witnesses will cause him to remember his past, think about the future and realise that his own small kindnesses have more power than he ever imagined.

I had heard about the Aberfan disaster before reading this book but the graphic descriptions of dead children that William has to clean and embalm haunted me. The book really hit home the horrific nature of what happened that day and my heart was so heavy for the whole of the first part. This is definitely something to be aware of before picking up this book. Yes, it’s ultimately about hope and kindness but there is deep, unimaginable sadness in it too.

The second part of the book looks at William’s boyhood as a chorister in Cambridge. His friendship with another boy called Martin is an important relationship in William’s life and this becomes clearer as the book progresses. Martin is a rebel and a bad influence on William but he is also incredibly kind. Sometimes I liked him and sometimes I was irritated by him and I think that’s exactly how the author intended Martin to be. 

William’s mother and uncle have different dreams for William and he has always felt torn between these two paths. He is a talented singer and rather than feeling genuine pride for her son, she sees it as a win for her over her brother-in-law. She is a very toxic person as she plays the part of a loving mother so well, when William is doing what she wants him to do. There are so many parents out there like this and it’s not too hard to see how estrangement happens, when their children reach adulthood.

William’s uncle Robert has a partner called Howard and when William realises the nature of their relationship, it opens up a lot more thoughts and questions for him. Suddenly, he sees his mother’s homophobia and he becomes aware of the prejudice and abuse that Robert and Howard experience as gay men. The treatment of gay people crops up again later in the novel and although years have passed, very little seems to have changed. Of course, homophobia is still an issue today, which shows how far we still have to go.

Many things in William’s past have understandably had a profoundly traumatic effect on him and although it’s never given a label, he is unmistakeably suffering from PTSD. I was really hopeful that he would confront his demons because I knew it would be the only way he could move forward. The book tackles this complex, devastating mental health condition in a very subtle yet sensitive way, illustrating the debilitating effects it can have on a person’s whole life.

During my reading of this book, I gained a new appreciation and admiration for embalmers and anyone who works in the death industry. It forced me to think about the true kindness of these people and the incredible amount of strength and compassion they must hold. It makes the title A Terrible Kindness very fitting for William and what he does for a living. 

A Terrible Kindness is heartbreaking, hopeful and a beautifully told story. In some ways, it is a portrait of one man’s life but it’s also a celebration of life, compassion and the power of selflessness and empathy. It’s also about learning to accept help when we need it, no matter how hard it may be to ask. A gorgeous, thoughful novel that will no doubt rip your heart out.
Was this review helpful?
It's brilliant, riveting and compelling. An emotionally charged story that I couldn't put down.
Great characters, excellent storytelling.
It's one of those book that you cannot stop thinking about even after you ended it.
Highly recommended.
Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for this ARC, all opinions are mine
Was this review helpful?
A Terrible Kindness tells the story of William, a newly qualified, top of his class embalmer, who intends to follow his father's example and go into business with his uncle Robert. Just as he is finishing his special graduating meal, he offers to help with the bodies of the children at the Aberfan disaster. We read about his 'terrible kindness' but also his past as a chorister at Cambridge, nearly ten years before.

I loved this book and the character of William and both the beginning and ending, book ended by the Aberfan disaster, were devastating to read about and imagine. I also loved the character of Martin, William's friend at Cambridge as a chorister, a boy who was totally different to William, but a best friend we all need.

Such a good character driven novel and I loved working out William's issues with him as I read it.
Was this review helpful?
I've found this a very difficult book to review because there were bits I did enjoy and bits I disliked. Ultimately, after finishing it on netgalley I decided to return my pre-ordered special edition because it just doesn't sit well with me that someone can make profit from a disaster such as Aberfan unless they have a very good reason.

 I need to mention that although the author has done lots of research and spoken to people who were there and visited Aberfan, she has no personal connection to Aberfan, or Wales. She was 3 when the Aberfan disaster happened.

This is what I struggled with the most. The small parts of the book written about the Aberfan disaster in 1966 were very emotional to read. They were handled sensitively and respectfully and I am aware of what research the author has done. I like that a light has been shone on the work of the volunteer embalmers, something I would never have known about if it wasn't for this book. 

But I do not feel the Aberfan disaster was essential to telling this story, which was about a young embalmer William. After the first 10% where William volunteers to help at Aberfan as a newly qualified embalmer, it isn't really mentioned again until towards the end of the book. There is a PTSD link somewhere towards the end but I don't think this was really explored enough.

With much of the story focused on William's time as a chorister at Cambridge, his relationship with his mother, Martin and Gloria, I don't see why this is marketed as "The Aberfan book" other than to just sell more copies. Which makes me feel uncomfortable. 

In general I found William a difficult main character to warm to and some events difficult to wrap my head around. Some parts of the middle of the story I found boring and frustrating. 

This is by no means a bad book and I feel I am in the minority here as a lot of people have raved about it, even named it their book of 2022! But this is why I felt I had to speak up. If you want to learn about the Aberfan disaster, Google it. Or read one of the non fiction books written by people who were there or affected by it. If this book is the first time you're hearing about it, don't let your learning end there. This was a real tragedy that has had a lasting impact on Wales. 28 adults died. 116 children died. The people of Aberfan deserve our hearts and respect.
Was this review helpful?
The story is based  over differing timelines moving backwards and forwards revealing the events in the life of William, a newly qualified embalmer. My preference was for the times we met the adult William as opposed to William as a boy. I just found his time as a child at boarding school depressed me.
The tragedy at Aberfan was sensitively dealt with and was very moving.
A compassionate and moving book.
Was this review helpful?
I loved this book, I found William's story to be so well written I couldn't put it down. The tale skips about with timelines so his life is unravelled to us, we find out about key significant events that deeply affect him and have consequences on choices he makes later on. William gets a place at a boarding school for choristers and some of his early life there forms the background for how he deals with the events at Aberfan, which of course affect him deeply. There are quite a few themes in this book and I felt it was sensitively written and very well researched. Interesting insights into the work of an embalmer and the life of a schoolboy chorister! The impact of music on memories and emotions really shone through. I wasn't too sure, from the blurb, if it was going to be too heartbreaking but there is a lot of hope and humanity in there. Totally absorbing, I loved it and highly recommend.
Was this review helpful?
A unique, unusual, beautiful book. Heartbreaking at times but ripe with redemption.  William was destined for choristry with his beautiful voice, his mother's dream but the early death of his father and difficult experiences at school led to an estrangement with his mother.  The novel starts with him as a young embalmer called to help at the tragedy of Aberfan.  Moving and authentic attention to detail from the author here. William's experiences with the lost children have a profound effect on his relationships and paralyse his communication with his loved ones. At times frustrating, William is an unusual character in a very unusual job. Beautifully written, we are taken backwards and forwards in time as the story is revealed to us.
Was this review helpful?
A beautifully written book that literally took my breath away.

A tale of tragedy and love, desire and pain.  

I sobbed my heart out but loved every minute.  I may just read it again straight away.

Utter perfection 

Highly recommended 5 stars from me
Was this review helpful?