THIS remarkable debut novel starts in a slightly bizarre location, and in the shadow of a cataclysmic event. It’s the Ladies’ Night Dinner Dance for the Midlands Chapter of the Institute of Embalmers in 1966. William Lavery, 19, has graduated as the youngest embalmer in the country, and the first student to achieve full marks in every area of study. He is sitting at a linen-covered table with his first love, Gloria, and is about to be congratulated in public by the Institute’s President.
William gets his moment in the spotlight, but it is eclipsed by the handing of a telegram to the president, who reads it out: “Embalmers needed urgently at Aberfan. Bring equipment and coffins.”
Historically, on 21 October 1966, just after 9.15 a.m., waste tip number seven on the upper flank of Merthyr Vale colliery — loosened by two days of heavy rain — had slipped down the hillside. A 40-foot wall of debris hit Pantglas Junior School, burying its children and teachers, and killing 140.
One hundred and forty bodies — 116 of them children — to be cleaned, prepared, and presented for identification and burial to their grief-stricken parents: it is a harrowing prospect. In real life, embalmers were mobilised. In the novel, William’s response is immediate: “I want to go.” And so, the story begins.
It’s an intriguing beginning, which already prompts questions. Why would a young man choose this of all professions? How did he get to be so proficient at it? Can someone so young and inexperienced deal with the weight of such human tragedy?
As this story unfolds, we soon discover that William is not simply a raw, rare talent: he is someone who’s been badly wounded. The circumstances of his upbringing mean that he is familiar with loss, conflict, crisis even. Consequently, he is a complex character — often his own worst enemy. As the author says of him — in the accompanying podcast interview — “for much of the novel, he cripples his own happiness.” He is at a loss to deal with his powerful emotions, and to discover his true identity.
William’s love life; an experience of heart-breaking death; his relationship with his mother; his competing and competitive talents — each threatens to derail him. With elegant prose, enormous warmth, and wit, Browning Wroe takes us by the hand. We journey through William’s life-changing experience in Aberfan, back through his childhood as a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge, and to an Ash Wednesday apocalypse that turned his world upside down.
William’s place at the residential choir school of King’s was engineered by his widowed mother. She has a future mapped out for him, which is a very determined diversion from a prospective life in the funeral business, which was the experience of his late father and is still the trade of his father’s twin brother, Uncle Robert. Family history, promises made, complicated relationships, and feelings of disempowerment among those closest to William stretch his loyalties and a sense of his own destiny.
For a while, as a chorister, William feels almost complete. Music plays a huge part in the novel, two pieces especially: Myfanwy, the haunting Welsh song of unrequited love, and Allegri’s sublime Miserere, the equivalent of Everest for treble choristers. Without giving the game away, they act as rich strands that interweave through William’s childhood and adult life.
Browning Wroe affirms that music acts as a kind of golden spiritual thread throughout the narrative, speaking of both brokenness and healing. For William, there is a period when it is absent from his life; his creator says that it was “like cutting his heart out”.
© Martin BondThe author, Jo Browning Wroe. Her novel was inspired by her experiences growing up in a crematorium
Embalming — the other main element in the novel — also carries spiritual and emotional heft. The author grew up in a crematorium, where death was familiar, but neither contemptible nor cheap. She brings to the narrative the significance of the intimate, personal relationship that takes place between the dead individual and the embalmer.
This part of the story is clearly impeccably researched, but the research is worn lightly, seamlessly woven throughout, to provide a rich texture of dignity and personal care in the presence of death. It is, as the title suggests, “a terrible kindness”.
Indeed, kindness is at the core of the novel. So many of the characters want the best for each other, but tension and pain accumulate when it is misplaced, or misunderstood. William’s mother, Evelyn, wants the best for her son, but her motives are mixed. William wants to be kind to his lover, but misreads what she wants. William’s uncle and his partner want to ease Evelyn’s grief, but make it worse.
There are moments when William takes solace — and paradoxically finds kindness — in the presence of the deceased. Taking care of them with tenderness and precision is an act that can’t be lost in translation. Their tacit acceptance of this compassion — his sense that he is doing good — confers healing to him.
This is a genuinely redemptive story. Browning Wroe says: “My job was to get [William] to the point at the end of the novel where he’d dealt with enough of his stuff to be able to live his life more fully.” She more than succeeds. But her blunt description belies the inspiring and heart-warming (and appropriately infuriating) experience of a world, and of a life exquisitely created by a writer of real consequence.
The Revd Malcolm Doney is a writer, broadcaster, and Anglican priest.
A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe is published by Faber & Faber at £14.99 (£13.49); 978-0-571-36829-7.
Listen to the author Jo Browning Wroe in conversation with Malcolm Doney in this week’s Church Times podcast. This is a new monthly series produced in association with the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature. The festival will return as an in-person event at the University of Winchester and Winchester Cathedral next February, and Jo Browning Wroe will be one of the speakers. faithandliterature.hymnsam.co.uk
A TERRIBLE KINDNESS — SOME QUESTIONS
- William’s mother says: “My job in life, William, is to love you like no one on earth, and I have to say, I think I’m doing a pretty good job . . .” Is she right?
- What was it that Martin Mussey’s friendship gave to William, and why was it so important?
- Myfanwy is a song about unrequited love, while Miserere explores penitence and the hope of a new life. What do these pieces signify and what part do they play in the narrative?
- The Welsh sage Betty tells William: “When we go through impossible things, someone, or something, will help us, if we let them.” Why is this so difficult a lesson for William to learn?
- What was it about William and his experiences that made him such a good embalmer, and why was the activity so good for him?
- What was it about the make-up and purpose of the Midnight Choir in Cambridge that made it so central to William’s rehabilitation?
IN OUR next Book Club page on 7 October, we will print extra information about our next book, To Calais, In Ordinary Time by James Meek. It is published by Canongate at £9.99 (£8.99); 978-1-78689-677-3.
To Calais In Ordinary Time is a work of historical fiction set in England in 1348. It covers the story of a group of travellers journeying towards Calais across England as the Black Death sweeps across Europe. Written in a way to capture the authenticity of spoken medieval English, the language is interspersed with Middle English words. The young noblewoman’s language is marked by Norman French, the learned proctor’s language is punctuated with Latinisms, and the language of the down-to-earth adventurous ploughman is more Saxon. It is a novel about life, love, death, and war, set during a time of turbulence and uncertainty across Europe.
James Meek is an award-winning British novelist and journalist. He is currently a contributing editor to the London Review of Books. His best-known book, published in more than 30 countries, is The People’s Act of Love. It was nominated for the Man Booker Prize and won both the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize and the Scottish Arts Council Award. The author was born in England, but grew up in Dundee and attended Edinburgh University. It was during his time as a student in the 1980s that he published his first collection of short stories.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
November: The Day That Went Missing by Richard Beard
December: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave