‘A Terrible Kindness’ by Jo Browning Wroe

In 21 October 1966, a coal slag heap fell on top of Pantglas Junior School and neighbouring houses in the small mining village of Aberfan in South Wales, killing 116 children and 28 adults. This is fact. I remember it happening. I can see now the headline in our local paper, lying on a chair in my grandmother’s house. Our dear late Queen, Elizabeth II, regarded this as greatest tragedy of her reign and she visited the village of Aberfan four times.

A Terrible Kindness, by Jo Browning Wroe, is about the Aberfan disaster. Gulp. We know these things happened but it’s still hard reading about them in a novel. Personally, I find factual accounts, even of the worst catastrophes, easier to cope with than fictional and dramatic accounts. As this also (along with The High Mountains of Portugal – see previous post) was a book club read, I shall be interested to know how the book club members coped with it.

A Terrible Kindness featured William Lavery, recounting his life from childhood, through choir school in Cambridge, qualifying as a embalmer (his uncle was an undertaker), going to Aberfan to help embalm children killed in the disaster and living with the trauma of his experience afterwards. The book was divided into four parts and the Aberfan part appeared first. Gulp. It was harrowing, especially when the author allowed us to know what the children had been like when alive – not all perfect, but human. For emotion and making the reader experience the setting, this author excelled. We felt the biting cold, driving rain, the desperation of the parents standing outside the temporary mortuary, hoping that the piece of clothing William was holding up would be their child’s because they couldn’t bear to think of him/her being alive still in the slag.

Then we go back, to William’s experiences in choir school in Cambridge. Having been a choir school parent myself, some of what happened didn’t quite ring true. A probationer singing solos after being there just a few months? No way! What did work for me was when William’s friend, Martin, was unwell and couldn’t sing, William feels sorry for Martin – of course – but his sympathy is overwhelmed by the excitement of singing in his place. Also, when William is disciplined for dormitory pranks by having his solo taken from him, the choirmaster overrules the headmaster and lets him sing anyway – oh yes, that would’ve happened.

Two more sections followed, about how William copes with the trauma of Aberfan. He dumps his girlfriend, Gloria, immediately afterwards, because he can’t bear the idea of having children, but… unreliable narrator or what? Cheating at unreliable narrator, I think.

Well-written, with an unobtrusive voice. Well constructed, even with a timeline that dibs and dobs about. Evidence of great historical research, with a developed understanding of peoples’ thoughts at the time. Miners and miners’ families are tougher than we give them credit for.

This book appeared in the Top Ten Sunday Times Bestsellers. Well deserved. I don’t usually read books which win awards, but do read this one. Do persevere beyond the gruelling bits. It’s all worthwhile.

Amazon link

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