A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe review – a saga shaped by tragedy

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

The 1966 Aberfan disaster frames the story of a young man struggling to come to terms with his past

In 1966, a colliery spoil tip above the Welsh village of Aberfan collapsed; 116 children and 28 adults were killed when the village was buried under a wave of slurry. Jo Browning Wroe’s debut novel, A Terrible Kindness, purports to be the story of a young embalmer who attends the disaster. The first thing to say is that it resolutely isn’t: it is, in fact, the kind of novel I used to enjoy reading off my grandparents’ shelves, a domestic saga about a young man struggling to overcome his childhood while joining the family business.

Mentally scarred by Aberfan, William Lavery tries, unsuccessfully, to break up with his girlfriend Gloria, and tells her he will never want to have children. The story then spools back to his chorister childhood in Cambridge, his falling out with his best friend, Martin, when Martin more or less assaults him in his sleep, and his determination never to sing again after inviting his uncle, who is gay, and his uncle’s partner to hear him at a service. His mother makes a scene on discovering them there, and William ends up moving in with his uncles. While taking Gloria around Cambridge, William bumps into Martin again; he later embarks on a redemptive trip to Aberfan.

Related: Aberfan 50 years on: how best to remember the tragedy?

This is the story of a man who has been profoundly affected by the death of his father and who, as a result, acts with extreme selfishness towards everyone in his life. William is a difficult character to like, no matter how much trouble he’s put through by Browning Wroe, a writer with a promising instinct for handling the tectonic elision of narrative events, so the next setback is always appearing round the corner in her well-structured tale. The novel affords limited emotional access to him, often relating the bare facts of events without letting the reader in on their impact. There is also a good deal of clunky writing throughout. Sentences such as “the roast pork … moved from William’s plate, to his mouth, to his stomach easily”, or “Ray’s baby is nestled inside her warm body”, sound like faltering translations, while the description “Aberfan is black, white or grey” will seem cursory to anyone who has seen images of the landslide.

There are other difficult elements. A fair chunk of the book is preoccupied with the homophobia of the period, which is well drawn, but presented without comment, so that for sustained periods the reader is simply wading through pages of anti-gay prejudice; a strangely dated experience. 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. As Gloria tells William: “You’re scared of help because of what else it will uncover. This isn’t just about Aberfan.” Gloria is one of several characters whose dialogue often seems to sum up the book’s themes. William’s mother, Evelyn, helpfully informs him, “There’s a madness that comes with grief”, and Martin is similarly educational: “You shut [music] out as if it was the thing that hurt you, when all along, it’s been the thing that can save you.”

When William finally returns to Aberfan, the focus is not on the disaster that happened there, but on how a bereaved mother was comforted by hearing him sing. Frankly, it feels a little tasteless – a tragedy bolted on to a conventional 1960s family saga, written and published half a century later. Has the passage of time made it acceptable to use the dead of Aberfan as a literary device that prompts a character to re-engage with the troubles of their childhood?

A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe is published by Faber (£14.99). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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