Review: A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe
Sarah Morgan Jones
When we go through something impossible, someone, or something, will help us, if we let them.
A little known but vitally important role in the immediate aftermath of the tragic events at Aberfan on the 21 October 1966, was that of volunteer embalmers, undertakers who made the journey from far and wide to answer the call for help.
In the opening chapters of A Terrible Kindness, they dutifully arrive with embalming fluid, technical paraphernalia, and tiny coffins, travelling through the night from all over the UK to ‘take care of the dead’ with the sombre focus of their profession.
Approaching Aberfan the day after the disaster, 19-year-old William Lavery, a newly qualified embalmer, felt exhilarated, excited even, that he was about to do a good thing. With skills gained (with distinction) from his recent training and from teenage years of apprenticeship in the family business, he believed he was perfectly prepared.
In washing away the coal-waste-assault, preparing the little bodies for burial, and helping the bereaved identify their kin, he and his fellow volunteers brought their unique skills to carry out the services that ‘no-one wanted to need’.
Days later, with no sleep and only short breaks for crab paste sandwiches and whisky-laced tea, his life had changed utterly, in a way he could not have predicted.
Although he drove away from the devastation of Aberfan that day, made it home to Sutton Coldfield, where he collapsed into the safety of his own bed, returning only once for the funerals of the children he had cared for, his feet and his mind set fast, as if in concrete, in the slurry from which the young bodies were retrieved.
Aberfan scooped out the core of him, stretched him thin. It set up camp in his body, behind his eyes, in his ears, his nose, on his hands, and running through his blood
The effect was to seal in the trauma of this catastrophic event, along with the death of his father, the damaged relationship with his mother and the abrupt and shameful end of his time as a schoolboy chorister at Cambridge.
A Terrible Kindness does not wallow in, appropriate, or invade the events of Aberfan 56 years ago, but rather positions William’s experiences there as another layer of his life which wraps around him, constricts, and shapes his future.
Examining masculinity and intimacy, love and loss, trauma and recovery, this story, seen through William’s eyes, is beautifully, insightfully, and respectfully told.
Following his late father into the family firm was an act of devastating rebellion against his mother’s ambitions for him and his singing gift.
As a child with an exceptional voice, he wins a scholarship to Cambridge University choir school, setting in motion some profound events which affect his relationships for years to come.
To William, the intricacies of embalming are logical and calm and provide both an escape from and a framework for the more unpredictable elements of his life – his love for the beautiful and patient Gloria, and his dear and mischievous friend Martin.
For the reader, the described processes present the unimaginable in a way which is forensic and unsentimental, in some ways, very black and white, giving us the opportunity to take it in without unnecessary adornment.
This approach helps William make his decisions in life – if this, then that – and seems to work well for him as his moral compass, until his self-discipline slips to self-indulgence and then self-loathing.
And as his feet fix ever more firmly into that concrete, it is then that the true concepts of family and friendship make themselves known to him.
Arranged around the apparently pivotal phase of his life embodied in Aberfan, William is indeed stretched thin, out of time, his past and future constantly pulling his present out of shape.
His memories swirl and gather, intertwine, and draw him to face a possible future upon which he believes only he can decide, but as he peers over the edge, it becomes clear that the ‘concrete feet’ of Aberfan are not the strongest grounding forces in his life.
Kindness, honesty and integrity are traits which run through William from a young age, and these characteristics attract similar souls.
So, when things go wrong for him, when the flipside of those traits emerge, he finds himself in a safer place than he expects or recognises.
Special mention must go to the recurrent musical threads of Myfanwy and Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus which are so elegantly woven that only a hard heart would be unmoved.
Revealing and unpacking the meanings of both songs at different stages of his journey, links his childhood and his father to the men of the Midnight Choir much later in life, winds gently around the people he loves and helps him find his way through the dark times.
Author Jo Browning Wroe’s family home was within the grounds of a crematorium, and, as the daughter of the crem superintendent, death and funerals was not something unusual for her, nor were funeral directors.
Her deep understanding of the responsibilities of the people who prepare the dead for their final stages, and the bereaved for the first rituals of grief is absolutely apparent in the writing of William’s story.
They did a terrible kindness to us, something none of us wanted to think about.
With chapters short and neat, distinct life eras laid out as voices in a four-part harmony from childhood into adulthood, portraying joys and woes alike, and a coda which wraps it all up nicely, the book had me in one compelling, luxurious, eyes-at-high-tide sitting.
A Terrible Kindness is published by Faber and available from your local bookshop
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Beautifully written review. Makes me want to read the book.