‘Keep your head down and your heart hard.’

Review: Vivien Horler

A Terrible Kindness, by Jo Browning Wroe (faber)

Sometimes at my book club we’ll be going through the books we’ve read and then pick one up and say: ‘Um, what was this one about again?’
A Terrible Kindness is not one of those. I suspect it’ll stay with me for a long time.
Apart from the poignance of the story line, there is also the unexpected juxtaposition of two unlikely topics: choral music and the undertaking trade.
And then there’s the ghastly 1966 Welsh tragedy of Aberfan, when a colliery tip slipped down a mountain into the village of Aberfan, engulfing a number of houses and a primary school just after lessons had begun for the day. More than 140 people died, most of them children.
At the centre of the story is William Lavery, 19 when the novel begins, and newly graduated from the Thames College of Embalming. During a “swanky” dinner of the Midlands chapter of the Institute of Embalmers to mark the beginning of William’s professional life, the main speaker reads out a telegram from Aberfan calling for help.
William, the third generation of a family of Birmingham undertakers, loads up a company hearse with embalming equipment, litres of formaldehyde and coffins, and drives through the night to the Welsh village.
It’s his first job, and it’s harrowing. He joins volunteer embalmers from all over the UK, dealing with small bodies as they are uncovered from the tarry slurry, cleaning them, cutting off their clothes and then going outside to the terrified waiting parents to say: “Whose little boy went to school on Friday in this shirt?”
The experience changes the trajectory of William’s life.
William’s first eight years are at the happy centre of an extended family. His father Paul and uncle Robert are twins, and with childhood friend Howard they run the undertaking firm. But when William is eight his father dies, and his mother Evelyn’s resentment of William’s attachment to Robert and Howard becomes an issue.
William has a remarkable singing voice, and Evelyn is determined William will have a professional future in music rather than in undertaking. After Paul’s death Evelyn intensifies her efforts towards this goal, and William passes an audition to be taken on as a chorister at a choir school in Cambridge.
At chorister school William meets Martin, a bit of a rascal who becomes a devoted and generous friend to a lonely only child.
But Evelyn’s ongoing resentment of William’s love for Robert and Howard becomes increasingly corrosive, leading to a meltdown that changes William’s life again.
And then there is Gloria. She is the daughter of the family William boards with while he attends embalming college in London, and he loves her from the first moment he meets her in the kitchen drinking cocoa.
But, as in all the best stories, love does not run smoothly.
William, man and boy, is lovely, affectionate, anxious, deeply moved by glorious music and the beauty of his Cambridge chapel. We’re on his side and want things to go well for him, even when we see he is unreasonably alienating those he loves most.
This is a rich novel about love and family and music – and a sense of professionalism.
When William arrives at Aberfan, an experienced embalmer tells him: “Now listen, William. The help we can 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. Got it?”

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