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A Terrible Kindness: The Bestselling Richard and Judy Book Club Pick

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A celebration is in full swing when news of the terrible Aberfan tragedy is delivered and the embalmers are asked to volunteer their services. The friendships, losses, relationships and family are the core of the story, but underneath it all is the experience that the character has in the first few chapters, and the scars that are carved into him; that of attending Aberfan in October 1966 as a freshly qualified embalmer. William is such a complicated character and the relationships he has, with his friends, his family and just about everyone else he meets are so layered and complex that it takes forever to unravel them all.

I truly appreciated listening to the magnificent sounds of various Cambridge choir renditions of Miserere and Myfanwy two songs regularly mentioned in the book. More troubling still is the use of Aberfan, which is presented as an instigating incident, but by the end of the novel has been acknowledged to be actually quite incidental. He had known where his life was going before that night, but for the second time, outside events would send him on a different path. This book featured in the 2022 version of the influential annual Observer Best Debut Novelist feature (past years have included Natasha Brown, Caleb Azumah Nelson, Douglas Stuart, Sally Rooney and Gail Honeyman among many others) and was also picked out by the New Statesman (and others) as one of the most anticipated debuts of 2022.

There are some things you read that have such an impact that they stay with you and I know this book will be one of them.

Not a fluffy one, no, but a real and raw positive story for real life people and complexity of feeling. However, for me, this story lost its way in the middle, the back and forth of the storyline didn't help.William was the main character and as the book opens he has just completed his training as an embalmer. Incredibly, in A Terrible Kindness, Jo Browning Wroe turns this appalling incident into a sort of tenderness. Finally, the last thing I’ll say about this book is that I’ll never forget sitting by the pool in Fuerteventura this afternoon, reading the last few chapters with tears STREAMING down my face! Exactly what his father had wanted for him was never stated before his premature death when William was just eight. A landslide has occurred in Aberfan and he is needed, as a newly qualified embalmer, to assist with the preparation of the deceased.

His way of dealing with these situations was to sever ties rather than to mend relationships and at times I wanted to shake him. I found it difficult to read at first but the story moves away so quickly I found it wasn’t really a book about the disaster at all.As an aside I initially felt this was an authorial misstep to withold the information about what happened in the incident from the reader when it is known to all of the book’s characters even those not there like William’s later wife Gloria (the daughter of another undertaking/embalming dynasty) – but I think this is so that we can first of all understand its consequences and judge for ourselves if it fits the incident (which while not doubt hugely mortifying should not have lead to a lifetime of damage). A colliery spoil tip collapsed after weeks of heavy rain, forming a slurry that slipped downhill and smothered houses but worst of all a school. However, for me, the story lost itself by then skipping backwards and forwards to the main character, William's former events in his life. 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. And what caused the break with his widowed mother, who seems to have an intense dislike to his father’s surviving identical twin Robert and his life partner, Howard?

Already scarred by the early loss of his father, a difficult relationship with his mother and a devastating event in his teens, William feels most comfortable with the dead, but through the patience and kindness of those who love him, perhaps he can let go of the past and embrace life. It will be his first job, and will be - although he's yet to know it - a choice that threatens to sacrifice his own happiness.What exactly happens is only revealed towards the book’s end, but it leads to William breaking all ties with his mother to the despair even of those more directly impacted by the incident (William’s Uncle Robert and William's closest Cambridge friend Martin). The novel really made me feel William’s pain both at losing his musical future and the PTSD he suffered after Aberfan. The book is also I think about characters (in particular William and his mother) that try to simplify difficult and complex issues into their life into a single point of focus and resentment, and adopt a policy of avoidance as well as blame rather than forgiveness (of themselves and others). The writing drew me in from the first page and the characters were so warm, so wonderful and just so damned real that I felt like I knew every one of them.

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