Cover Image: A Terrible Kindness

A Terrible Kindness

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date:

Member Reviews

A Terrible Kindness recalls a day in October 1966 when coal and mud slid down a Welsh mountain side and engulfed the school in the village of Aberfan. I was a day seared in my memory because I was nine years old — the same age as many of the children who died — and like them grew up surrounded by coal mines.

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.

This tragic event is portrayed vividly and poignantly in Jo Browning Wroe’s debut novel.

On the night of the tragedy, nineteen-year-old William Lavery is being feted at a posh dinner and dance for members of the Institute of Embalmers. He’s just become the youngest ever embalmer in the country and tipped to be one of the profession’s best practitioners. But the festivities are brought to an abrupt end by an urgent appeal for volunteers to immediately travel to Wales and tend to the victims of a horrific incident.

It will be William’s first job as an embalmer and what he experiences over the next few nights in the makeshift mortuary in Aberfan, re-awakens memories of his own childhood trauma. As he tends gently to the bodies of small children dug out from the slurry and witnesses their parent’s grief, “the flotsam and jetsam of his own life is washed up by the tidal wave of Aberfan’s grief.”

Throughout the book we’re given hints that some calamity befell William when he was a boy, causing him to leave Cambridge abruptly without completing a coveted scholarship scholarship at a university choir school . It’s not until the final chapters do we learn what happened, and why this has caused William so much anguish over the years.

What we discover is a tale of a childhood blighted by the death of his father when he was eight years old. William’s mother is determined that her son will not get caught up in the family’s undertaking business but instead will pursue a career in music. But her plans are thrown into chaos and the relationship with Williams is destroyed because she cannot overcome her jealousy over the boy’s relationship with two other people, her dead husband’s twin brother Robert and Robert’s partner Howard.

A Terrible Kindness is a novel about grief and forgiveness; of misplaced love and decisions that have long-lasting consequences. It’s strong on setting and the portrayal of anguish. The scenes in Aberfan are handled particularly well; portraying the immensity of the task faced by the volunteer embalmers as they wrestled to maintain professionalism in the face of unbelievable tragedy.

These chapters could so easily have been either mawkishly sentimental or too graphic but I thought Wroe skillfully avoided both traps. Yes there are descriptions of the practices followed by an embalmer, but they are not gratuitously detailed. Nor are there explicit details of the injuries suffered by the children. What we do get is a deep sense of the sensitivity, almost reverence, shown with the arrival of each small frame.

Despite the opening. A Terrible Kindness is not a novel about the Aberfan disaster or necessarily its aftermath. Most of the novel is actually occupied with William’s attempts to get his life back on track. In between, there are sections which rewind to his time at Cambridge where he formed a close bond with another chorister and fulfilled his potential as a singer.

I didn’t fully buy into the premise of the book about the source of William’s inability to deal with his emotions. The narrative puts it down to one event that occurred when he was about 14 years. Certainly it would have been a distressing incident for a young, impressionable boy but it didn’t seem realistic to me that it was so traumatic that it caused him to stop singing entirely.

What I did enjoy however was the way Jo Browning Wroe showed the power of music to provide solace and an escape from suffering. We’re drawn into the world of music through the famous Welsh song Myfanwy about unfulfilled love and Allegri’s setting of the Miserere and their power is evoked so beautifully I felt compelled to seek out some recordings.

The restorative power of music is most clearly shown however when William revisits Cambridge to discover his friend is the organiser of a choir formed from the city’s homeless population. William challenges the idea of men who have nothing being asked to sing about love and loss but his friend’s belief is that these are exactly the sentiments the men should be able to voice. 

A Terrible Kindness is ultimately a tale of humanity, showing how love and compassion endures even in the most difficult of situations.
Was this review helpful?
This is a quite beautiful book, compassionate and tender. It brought me to tears at one point. There were a couple of little points I wondered about, for instance, did people talk about 'logistics' when discussing funeral arrangements back in 1970-ish? Other than that it's well worth reading.
Was this review helpful?
Wow ..I absolutely loved this beautiful tender story. Set in England in the mid sixties this book introduces us to Willian Lavery who at nineteen , has just graduated as an embalmer at the Thames College of Embalming. On the night of his graduation dinner word filters through that following a terrible tragedy in Aberfan in Wales, embalmers are urgently needed to help with bodies that are mounting as a result of this harrowing accident. William immediately volunteers to go and this story shows us how the aftermath of such an event has left a huge shadow on Williams life.
This is a gentle, poignant story filled with a cast of wonderful characters. From Williams mother,  through to his school friend Martin, these are all wonderful warm people. While the subject matter of this book is heartbreaking it tells it’s story with great sympathy and understanding. This book is something special and I can not recommend it enough. For me #ATerribleKindness is without doubt a 5⭐️ read.
Many thanks to #NetGalley and the publishers #FaberFaber for an ARC of this book.
Was this review helpful?
A wonderfully moving tale of life, death and complex relationships. The story of William begins with him volunteering as a newly qualified embalmer to assist with task of preparing the deceased, mainly children, at the Aberfan disaster. We are then taken on a journey through time to his childhood and teenage years coping with the death of his own father and strained relations between his mother and uncle to whom he is very close. As a young adult William suffers in his life due to these and other important events in his childhood and we see how he tries to deal with them.
This was a very moving book and was exceptionally well written by the author. Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the advance copy to review.
Was this review helpful?
This book begins with the Aberfan disaster in 1966 where William, a young but compassionate newly qualified embalmer volunteers. This experience will have a significant impact on William and this book reflects on both his personal history and his feelings from Aberfan as he moves forward. 

This was an incredible book, and it was clear that the author had spent time researching both the Aberfan disaster and the work of embalming as it came over very authentically. 

This was a very cleverly written book, and I loved the way in which William's personal history was gradually revealed to build up a picture of the young man who had been shaped by his time as a child chorister at Cambridge, his family history and Aberfan. The book was very sensitively written, both in relation to Aberfan and the embalming work and as a consequence a truly heartbreaking read. 

Whilst the setting was authentic, this was also true of the characters who were well developed and interesting and I was keen to learn more about them. This was a book that could have been too melancholy but it was also warm and witty particularly in relation to some of the scenes at Cambridge. 

Ultimately whilst heartbreaking at times, this is a beautifully written, warm and sensitive book which I found deeply evocative and I will be thinking about it for some time. 

Thanks to the the publisher for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.
Was this review helpful?
When a coal tip collapses on Aberfan‘s Junior School in October 1966, newly qualified embalmer William Lavery rushes to the scene to help. Tending to the children, he hears Allegri’s Miserere on the radio and it brings back flashbacks of his childhood, when he was a chorister in Cambridge and the culmination of events that led him to stop singing and severe contact with his mother and best friend Martin. Memories of both these times shape his future and haunt him day and night.
A beautifully written and well researched debut by Jo Browning Wroe, exploring the subjects of love, relationships, guilt and death with sensitivity and insight.
Tears rolled down my face on a number of occasions as William tries to overcome his demons with the support of his loving wife Gloria and uncle Robert.
With thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for this arc in exchange for an honest review.
Was this review helpful?
The tragedy of Aberfan is so great that a work of fiction using it as a backdrop for part of the story has real problems. Nothing else in William’s life could have the same impact on me so the jumping about in time had no dramatic effect but rather was simply annoying.
Was this review helpful?
Following a tragic incident in 1966 William offers to help prepare the bodies that have perished. Having already faced demons in his past this incident will haunt him for a long time. Suffering from PTSD  the book looks at how these events from the past affect all his relationships. Whilst the content might put you off, the author has written compassionately.
Was this review helpful?
It is October 1966 and William Lavery is having the night of his life at his first black-tie do. It's one day after his graduation as an embalmer. But, as the evening unfolds, news hits of a landslide at a coal mine in Aberfan. It has buried a school full of children. William decides he must act, so he stands and volunteers to attend. It will be his first job as an embalmer, and it will be one he never forgets.
His work that night forces him to think about the little boy he was, and the losses he has worked so hard to forget. William's father died when he was just a boy, leaving him behind with a mother who was only barely keeping it together. Because of his beautiful voice, William has made it to Cambridge at age 10 to become a chorister, but it all seems to come crashing down from there. Will William ever find peace within himself?

This is what A Terrible Kindness is about. The title refers to the work William did at Aberfan. The many children's bodies he attended to, making them as proper as he could before the parents came in to identify them. A terrible kindness that came on top of an already troubled life and that caused William to derail fully.
Author Jo Browning Wroe has done a great job portraying William's many challenges, turning him into a warm, young man and at other times the most annoying person I could have ever met. It's safe to say that I did not quite like A Terrible Kindness's main character. That, however, made the story feel real to me, like it really did happen like this.

I've read reviews in which Wroe was critized for using the horrors Aberfan endured to further her own novel and career. For me, living in another country alltogether, it doesn't feel like that. And even if she'd used something out of my country's history, I wouldn't be angry. I'd say every author should be free to draw upon whatever inspiration he or she could find, as long as it's done in a respectful way. I felt A Terrible Kindness was done in a respectful way.

A Terrible Kindness gives you an intriguing insight into the works of embalming, into the history of Aberfan and last but not least into the life of chorister boys at Cambridge. It's a beautiful historical novel that had me whimpering and smiling at the same time.
Was this review helpful?
“Just because they’ve lost everything, doesn’t mean that have stopped being human.”

On October 21, 1966, a mound of coal waste slid down a hillside and engulfed the Pantglas Junior School in Aberfan, and several of the houses. The impact killed 116 children and 28 adults.  Jo Browning Wroe retells this story so gently, and with love; it does not mask the terrible tragedy, yet it is so respectful of the memories of that fateful day. William is a third generation embalmer, and in his first job after graduation. William’s job is to identify the victims: he gathers what remains of their clothes, holds them outside the makeshift morgue, waiting for a parent to claim their child. He treats each body with care, love and attention. He sings to them. And he only realises the traumatic impact of his work in Aberfan when he tries to think about a future for himself and his new wife, Gloria; and with that, William also has to reconcile with his past, part of the journey to how he has ended up where he has.
The backstory of William in Cambridge, with the relationship with his mother and Uncle Robert and Howard is beautifully written. It softly explores the controlling ways of his mother, and the relationship between Robert and Howard in a time where homosexuality was not accepted, and the death of his father. It provides a glimpse into this teen years in the Cambridge Choir, and all the things that Williams was striving for and their build up to the memories that finally come into the open.

There is so much care taken with each relationship you read about, from William and his mother, to William and his Cambridge Choir friends martin. We learn enough about them to feel a closeness with them. Even among the darkest days and memories, there is always an element of kindness and peace. There is a lot of loss and grief throughout this book, but what emerges in the kindness of strangers, family and friends. There is so much compassion in the writing that is hard not to be touched when reading it.

“Et secundum miltitudinem misarationum tuarrun, dele iniquitatem meam.”
Was this review helpful?
A Terrible Kindness is a beautifully written novel about love, loss, grief and everything in-between.

William is a newly qualified embalmer, following in his Uncle and Late Father's footsteps, when the function he is at is interrupted, asking for volunteers to help at Aberfan. He is having the time of his life, at his first black-tie function alongside Gloria who he is in love with - but hasn't told yet.

It's October 1966, and Aberfan primary school has just been buried following the catastrophic collapse of colliery spoil tip no 7. The village is in shock, it's children dead or missing.

William's job at first is to help identify the victims by extracting their clothing and then holding the item aloft where the parents of the missing are gathered, waiting for someone to claim the garment and their child.

He quickly moves on to what he knows best, embalming. The work is relentless, so many bodies to get through, and the work becomes harder, the victims more gravely injured as time goes on. William thinks little of it at the time, he is there to do a job, a job he excels at.

It isn't until he returns home that he realises his life may never be the same again. Still young himself, the Aberfan disaster forces William to think about his troubled past and consider events that he has tried hard to forget, as he tries to look toward the future and whatever that may hold. 

This is a superb debut, and I can't wait to see what this author does next.
Was this review helpful?
Rarely have I been so moved by the opening chapters of a book it was heart rending.
I cannot believe this is a debut novel it is quite an extraordinary read & writing at its best.
You may find it a difficult read in places because of the very emotional content it contains.
The opening chapters covers the story of a young William who is a newly qualified embalmer. 
He is called on to help with the awful disaster that occurred In Aberfan in 1966 when a terrible landslide killed so many people of which were mainly children. 
It is gruesome and heartbreaking & the author creates the scenes so vividly.
How will this affect William going forward as it’s bound to leave its mark.
The book then takes us back in time to when William is Ten .
His father is dead & he is going to Cambridge to become a chorister as he has a beautiful voice.
The book takes us on a journey of the various stages of his troubled life.
From all that happens in his chorister days to the reasons he chooses to become an embalmer.
There are key points throughout that are hinted at but only start to get revealed towards the end.
We start to get a glimpse of what can happen when we don’t open up & we bottle up up all those emotions.
I was fascinated about the procedures & details about embalming & was pleased to hear it was done with sensitivity. 
Having worked as a chapel verger at a crematorium for a number of years overseeing funerals I was aware of some of the things. 
This is a heartbreaking yet compassionate story that really held me I could not put it down. 
Well researched I found it to be a thoroughly interesting read that tackled a lot of difficult themes & issues.
I would definitely like to read more from this author this book was a compelling read for me.
Was this review helpful?
This was a difficult book to read in places because of the emotional content, not because it is badly written. The story opening is harrowing and life- changing for the main character: William.

William, as a young, newly- trained embalmer, is called to help at the terrible disaster which occurred in Aberfan in  1966. His maturity and compassion through this entire section of the book is commendable and I was fascinated by the gruesomeness and heartbreaking task that William had to undertake. I know a little about this disaster, but could so clearly picture the scenes through this book that I felt like I could have been there. However, against this heart-break there is a 'contained-ness' about William that is unnerving. As the book progresses you move between various timelines as his full story unfolds. His childhood has not been easy and his job as an embalmer is something which he has undertaken against his mother's wishes. 

The book is less about Aberfan than I expected but I was not disappointed as there is so much more to uncover. William's father had died while he was young and his mother's relationship with her homosexual brother-in-law, who was also her husband's identical twin, did not make for an easy existence. William is discovered to have a beautiful voice and is selected to become a chorister at Cambridge. I loved this part of the story which felt authentic as I work in Oxford and could easily image these scenes. His time at school is hard and exacting but his friendship with Martin and the magical experiences of singing as part of a choir balance this out. But life is never simple, and his actions tear apart his fragile family bonds and set William on a very different path for the next stage of his life: one away from singing, school, Martin, and all that he holds dear.

As a young man, William is attracted to Gloria, the daughter of the family he was lodging with while he studied to be an embalmer. Even their relationship is fraught with complications and is threatened by the introduction of Ray, a fellow student on William's course. Gloria is one of the most understanding, patient characters I have ever met and she puts up with a lot from William in the course of this book.

It is hard to explain just how complex a character the author created in William. He appears calm and collected, yet actually is frozen by a number of traumatic events. His pride and care as an embalmer are truly heart-warming, though it is clear that the dead do not ask difficult questions and their presence is preferable because of this. 'A Terrible Kindness' tracks Williams journey through life and all of its ups and downs. It is gritty and real set in places you cannot help but recognise. The rhythm of the book is slow and leisurely, but stick with it because all of the characters are compelling! Four and a half stars from me!
Was this review helpful?
This was so unexpected; I found it hugely emotional and very very human. I previously had no idea about the embalmers of Aberfan but I'm really glad that they now have been given the spotlight they deserve for the incredible and difficult work they did there. Very well researched. The various storylines across the various stages of William's life were woven together really well, and I particularly liked reading about his time as a chorister and his time spent at Martin's house. Definitely less time spent in Aberfan than I anticipated but it all came together really beautifully actually.
Was this review helpful?
Quite a unique read and certainly harrowing and emotional.
It didn't feature Aberfan throughout like I expected but more the impact of it after on the young life of embalmer William and his ongoing trauma through his relationship with his mother after the death of his father when he was 8. 
At times I felt a bit lost especially during the middle of the book when time starts jumping back and forth and years jump ahead in the story but I understand why this happened I just felt I needed a chapter title or clear explanation this was several years on etc rather than figuring it out after a few sentences. 
William is a very intense character that I'm not sure I truly got to know but I did enjoy the development of his relationship with Gloria and Martin. 
The parts that detail the procedures and practices of embalming were fascinating and informative.
Was this review helpful?
On 21 October 1966, the primary school at Aberfan in Wales was engulfed in slag from the slippage of a coal mining dump on the hill behind the town.  In total 116 children and 28 adults were killed that day in the school and nearby houses. Nineteen year old William Lavery, a recently graduated embalmer, now a member of his family firm of funeral directors, an annual dinner dance, when the call went out for embalmers to volunteer to help with preparing bodies for burial. William rushed to Wales with a car load of embalming supplies and chid sized coffins to find not just dead bodies of little children, but bodies covered in slag that had to be cleaned first so parents could identify them. As time went on, the bodies became more mangled, making them a horrific sight not only for the parents but also the undertakers. 

William would suffer from the trauma of that day for years afterwards, with nightmares and visions of mangled children, which would affect his relationships with women and young children. What made it even harder for William, was that he was already bearing scars from his childhood before he went to Aberfan. His father died when he was eight and after being encouraged by his mother to develop his musical talents rather than go into the family business, he was accepted into a chorister school in Cambridge two years later. However, his musical career came to an abrupt and traumatic end, causing William to sever ties with his best friend Martin as well as with his mother, Evelyn and to later train as an embalmer and join Robert and Howard in the family business he has come to love.

This is a well written debut novel telling a heartfelt story on one man's coming of age after some difficult times. It wasn't so much about the Aberfan disaster as about the effects of PTSD on those who are involved in recovering bodies after such disasters. I felt the novel would have benefitted by dealing with the Aberfan disaster more sensitively by integrating it into the rest of the novel, rather than putting it aside until the end of the novel, when the aftermath and subsequent inquiry had such a big impact on the UK at the time. 

I enjoyed the role of music in the book, as redemption for both William and Martin. As well as William’s gentle, caring nature, I also loved Martin’s cheeky character and the man he became. The novel really made me feel William’s pain both at losing his musical future and the PTSD he suffered after Aberfan. I admired the author’s gentle touch in dealing with William’s issues but did feel he was somewhat immature and stubborn in his relationships with his mother and his wife Gloria, while everyone around him seemed to be so tolerant and forgiving of his behaviour for so long. This is a very original book which has managed to bring together the diverse topics of the Aberfan disaster, the life of a boy chorister and embalming as a career choice and meld them into a delightful novel.
Was this review helpful?
'A Terrible Kindness' had an amazing beginning and ending, but the rest was not as amazing. It opens with scenes from the Aberfan tip disaster, as the main character William is sent there to assist with the dead bodies. The rest of the book then goes through the rest of William's life - his childhood, his time as a Cambridge chorister, how he became an embalmer, and his marriage. They are told out of order, which I found really confusing and hard to see any character growth. I think if it had been told in chronological order it would have been more impactful, rather than starting out with the most emotional scene in the book. William was also deeply unlikeable, and is terrible to many people in his life. It was also hard to find the links between his life events, they are interesting but so hard to see the relationship between being a chorister and becoming an embalmer. There is also a key event hinted at throughout the novel that is quite underwhelming once revealed. 

I received a free e-book from Netgalley in exchange for a review.
Was this review helpful?
A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Rowe
Pub Date 20th January 2022
It is October 1966, and William Lavery is having the night of his life at his first black-tie do. But, as the evening unfolds, news hits of a landslide at a coal mine. It has buried a school: Aberfan.
William decides he must act, so he stands and volunteers to attend. It will be his first job as an embalmer, and it will be one he never forgets.
His work that night will force him to think about the little boy he was and the losses he has worked so hard to forget. But compassion can have surprising consequences because - as William discovers - giving so much to others can sometimes help us heal ourselves.
This is a brave subject matter for a debut novel.
Aberfan is still etched deep in many Welsh peoples hearts and minds. 
The story follows William Lavery, who is a newly qualified embalmer. William went to help the residents of Aberfan as the horrific landslide of 26th October 1966 occurred. William's life story is portrayed before, during and after the disaster. It is an incredibly touching read, full of despair, devotion and hope.
I want to thank NetGalley, Faber and Faber Ltd and author Jo Browning Rowe for a pre-publication copy to review.
Was this review helpful?
January and I’ve already had an  “if you read one book this year” recommendation to give.
The books opens with William qualifying from embalming college and going straight to help at the terrible tragedy that was Aberfan, an experience that will shape his life. This part of the book is so brilliantly written it’s horrifically captivating. William is a sensitive troubled individual, and as the  book moves  back and forth between different timelines we uncover what happened to him. As we follow his story we’re given a glimpse into the life of an embalmer (fascinating), a social history of the times and an uncomfortable view of what happens when we bottle up our feelings and don’t confront them. This is a beautifully written book and definitely deserves to be up there in the ‘book of the year’ category. A book that will stay with you.
Was this review helpful?
A beautiful and compassionate story of the profound effect an experience can have on an individual. Told with patience and sensitivity, the use of a British disaster as a key moment in the novel brings realism to the narrative and really makes you care about the protagonist and all those he comes into contact with. This novel has stayed with me.
Was this review helpful?