Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 27, 2023

A Terrible Kindness (2022), by Jo Browning Wroe

Shortlisted for the Bridport Prize for emerging writers, A Terrible Kindness is the debut novel of Jo Browning Wroe from Birmingham. In the UK it became a bestseller, but I heard about it from a podcast called Pagecast. This novel was also mentioned in a Guardian article about the rise of older female writers.  Wroe was 58 when it was published.

Most people would probably not associate traumatic experiences with the embalming industry because the misery of PTSD tends to be associated with war, and in my reading, it has featured in that context.  A Terrible Kindness, however, is the first that I’ve read that focusses on the unseen ‘first responders’ who come into a community to attend to the bodies of the dead in a mass disaster. Wroe’s novel is about a young man called William, who responded for a call to help at the Aberfan disaster.  Aged just nineteen, he spent three days making a succession of little bodies fit for parents to identify, and when his work was done he went home to Birmingham.

Aberfan in the days immediately after the disaster, showing the extent of the spoil slip (Wikipedia)

Reading this novel brought back memories for me.  I was a teenager in 1966 when a Welsh colliery slag heap collapsed in heavy rain, sending a slurry (a river of waste material from the coal mine) down into the valley at 50 miles an hour.  In the village of Aberfan, it smothered Pantglas Junior School and some houses, killing 116 children between seven and ten, and 28 adults.  It was front page news here in Australia, and though the disaster was masked by the small black-and-white images, the world grieved. Going to school was an ordinary everyday experience.  It had never occurred to us that disaster could suddenly strike like this.  How could a community recover from something so dreadful?

It is normal, I expect, that people focus on the bereaved, but Wroe, who ‘grew up in a crematorium in Birmingham’ has crafted her novel to depict the experience of one who dealt with this experience without the support of the community.  William arrives at the scene after driving all night and is ushered into a makeshift embalming station lit by hurricane lamps because the electricity was cut.  There he is briefed by an Irish embalmer who has also come to help.

‘We’ve set up a couple of stations in the vestry and a couple more in the other chapel down the road.  We wash them, get them identified, treat and coffin them.  Then they’re moved to the other chapel. ‘ Jimmy still has his hand on William’s shoulder, but he’s talking to a spot on the ground a few feet ahead of them.  William tries to concentrate; there won’t be time for questions later. ‘Our biggest challenge is the slurry.  It’s like tar and all you’ve got is soap and cold water. Just do the best you can.’ Jimmy rakes a hand through his red hair. ‘Now listen, William — it is William, isn’t it?’ William nods again.  ‘The help we give these people is not complicated.  We do our job.  We do it well, we do it quickly and we leave.  We’re not priests, or friends or family.  We’re embalmers.  Keep your head down and your heart hard.  That’s your kindness.’ He squeezes William’s shoulder.  ‘Got it?’

‘Yes sir.’ (p.17)

Today, there would be counselling and support for first responders, but William does his job and goes home.  To a life that is already compromised by family dysfunction. He is estranged from his mother, and lives instead with his Uncle Robert and his partner Howard.  They have welcomed him into following his father’s footsteps in the family embalming business but his mother wanted him to have a career in music.  She had made sacrifices to send him to the Cambridge Choir, but for reasons not fully explained until late in the novel, she ruined everything and blighted any career prospects he might have had.  Recovering from that traumatic experience, resentful and angry, he welcomes the quiet solitude in which he does his work.

On the night he got the call he was at a dinner dance to celebrate his success in completing his training, and he is there with Gloria, the love of his life.  He now can’t face the possibility of children.  He has terrible dreams reliving his experience and he thinks he should not inflict himself on the girl he loves.

Moving backwards and forwards in time, the novel traverses William’s time as a chorister with an exquisite voice, and there are frequent references to Allegri’s Miserere which is performed each year on Ash Wednesday.  Every soloist in the choir craves the honour of singing the boy soprano’s unearthly solo (which you can hear at 1:30).

They also learn to sing Myfanwy, which today is an anthem for the tragedy at Aberfan.

Perhaps because the author is a woman in her late 50s, her portrayal of older women interested me.  William’s mother is a young woman experiencing sudden widowhood, which even in the Sixties was comparatively rare.  Like William struggling to deal with trauma, she deals with her demons alone, and brings up her boy in a somewhat claustrophobic and overprotective home.  Evelyn is devoted to her son at the expense of other relationships and the possibility of a new life.  To William’s distress, she is implacably hostile to Uncle Robert, because he is her dead husband’s identical twin.  She needs a wise older woman in her life, someone like Betty from the village of Aberfan who plays such a crucial role in William’s recovery.

The novel makes reference to the intrusive media which made everything harder, but you can see a sensitive report titled ‘Aberfan — Sorrow and the Stirring of New Life’ about the aftermath here.  It depicts the survivor guilt that kept the surviving children off the streets, and it shows the men who dug the bodies out downing a pint among friends at the pub. The women grieve mostly in private, but they gather in small groups at the cemetery.  It made me wonder about the traumatic effects on the photojournalist J C Rapoport and his writer Jim Hicks.

As the Aberfan disaster begins to fade from living memory, A Terrible Kindness is a promising debut with an important story to tell.

Author: Jo Browning Wroe
Title: A Terrible Kindness
Cover design: ‘Faber’ i.e. not credited
Publisher: Faber, 2022
ISBN: 9780571368303, pbk., 381 pages
Source: Kingston Library

Image credit: Aberfan disaster: by Unknown – Original publication: Unknown, Immediate source:, Fair use,


  1. I remember hearing about this: I was 10 and still at primary school. And now, I must read this book.


    • It was such a shock.
      And what’s really awful about that, is that we have since become used to mass murder in US schools. I find that a hard thing to know about myself even though it’s none of my doing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this sensitive review Lisa. The books sounds to be very moving. It was such an horrific event, it seems extraordinary that people could go on living there, but of course they had nowhere else to go.

    One very minor point: you did a typo in that the soaring solo in the Allegri Miserere is a boy soprano, not a tenor.


    • What little I know about managing trauma is that people should take their time before making any big decisions. My guess is that staying with the community, where everyone knows and understands, might be better than going elsewhere?

      Quite right about the error, thank you, I will fix it!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds really interesting. I get a bit fed up being TOLD counsellors etc are being brought in to communities where disasters have occurred because that should be common practice. It wasn’t I know … hopefully no one would be left the way William apparently was now but it doesn’t hurt being reminded of the fallout on others of theses awful events/accidents/disasters.


    • TBH I think that they report that the counsellors are coming for the victims, so that they know they are on the way. We do sometimes hear reports that ‘no one’s come to help’ when in fact they are on the way, they just can’t get there instantly which is what some people expect. (Though who can blame them for being unreasonable, in such circumstances.)
      In the story, this young man drives all night, but is held up here and there by roadblocks set up to deter intrusive media and stickybeaks. (He has to have a password to get through.) He goes straight to work without even a cup of tea.
      But also, imagine, the families, friends and loved ones of 116 children and 28 adults, and all the people involved in digging out the bodies and so on. Almost everyone in the village would need counselling, not to mention the first responders who’ve come from elsewhere. Even today, when things are hopefully better organised, how many counsellors could be found for that level of need? How many could be found, not already busy with other needs, who could drop everything and get there, and then be accommodated somewhere in a small village as well?
      My guess is that our recent floods have put enormous pressure on counselling services because it’s been a never-ending horror show for the people caught up in them.


      • Yes, good point about the availability of counsellors. And yes. In these disasters the need is huge.


  4. A few years ago, I saw a movie about the Aberfan disaster that dramatized the incident.


  5. I was 9 years old at the time of the tragedy, the same age as many of the children who died that day and like them, grew up in a community overlooked by huge coal mines. The tragedy of that day was compounded by what happened afterwards – people from all around the world contributed to an appeal fund to help those who had suffered loss. When it came to work to remove the coal tip and make it stable, it wasn’t the coal owners (ie, the government) who footed the bill – it was the appeal fund!

    I was curious how the author would handle the disaster – I read another novel on this a few years ago and it was appalling. But Jo Browning Wroe did an excellent job I thought of showing the effect of the disaster without over-doing it.


    • The day we drove into Wales, it was cold and grey and rainy, but I had forgotten all about this tragedy and did not feel threatened by slag heaps that seemed to be everywhere. In fact, if you look at the photo on my travel blog when we were at the Llechwedd Slate Caverns, and click to enlarge the one where The Spouse is holding a camera, you can see how close he is to one of them.

      Conwy, Wales, 1.10.10

      One can only assume that they have now done whatever needs to be done to keep the heaps stable.


  6. I remember Aberfan. I remember that a parent had kept her child home from school that day and that consequently he/she (?) was targeted by others in the area.


    • Sadly, I think that sort of thing did happen. Anger, we know, is part of the grieving process, and people sometimes lash out at someone when they’re looking for someone to blame.
      But the parents of surviving children felt survivor guilt. They kept their kids inside as much as they could. And the kids grew up with survivor guilt too.


  7. As you can imagine, so many books cross my path at work that I never get the time to look into. This was one.

    I liked the cover design, but it gives away absolutely nothing about what the book is about. I didn’t read the back cover either. If I had known that it was set in Wales during the Aberfan tragedy I may have been tempted though. (I was barely a twinkle in my parents eyes at that point – they’d only been married a few months by Oct 1966, but my Welsh ancestry and name makes books like this of interest to me).
    Hmmm I wonder if the b-format paperback is available yet?


    • I wouldn’t have known a thing about it either were it not for that Pagecast podcast. Truth be told, if I’d seen it in a shop with bestseller plastered all over it I wouldn’t have even picked it up because bestsellers and I do not usually get on. So I don’t usually go there unless I’ve read a review from someone I trust.
      But I am doing a tedious job, gradually dating all the books I’ve reviewed so that their year of publication shows up in the blog post title, and so I’m listening to podcasts of all sorts while I do it. And for once, it did me a favour because this bestseller deserves to be widely read.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I feel your pain! One of the jobs I’m slowly doing is going back to add the authors name & date of publication to my tags list. It’s laborious but will hopefully make future searches an easier process. Trouble is many of the older posts also have weird formatting as a result of the changeover to WP 2 yrs ago. I tidy them as I go, fixing defunct links etc. I’m not sure my brain could multi-task & listen to a podcast at the same time!!


        • It’s just luck, because in the beginning I had no idea what I was doing with tags, but I’ve always simply named my posts with the author’s name and the title, and I’ve added those as tags. But there’s always housekeeping, eh?

          Liked by 1 person

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