A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe review: a moving tribute to Aberfan – but not a great novel

Aberfan is a story that Britain will, and should, find difficult to forget. A natural disaster, caused by official negligence, that took 116 children’s lives; photographs of the giant spoil-tip that swept through a Welsh primary school; schoolgirls praying on the ruins as men dug towards classmates entombed below.

That 1966 disaster underpins A Terrible Kindness, the debut novel by Jo Browning Wroe. Her approach is the obverse to that of The Crown, which focused, in its 2019 episode Aberfan, on the sluggish political and royal response (which the Queen is said still to regret). Browning Wroe creates a 19-year-old, William, from a family of embalmers, who arrives that night on his very first job. He finds bodies being borne through the rain, slurry coursing across the streets.

The Aberfan passages, opening and closing the book, let the tragedy speak for itself: more reportage than invention, they have a hushed effectiveness. The rest of the novel is meagre stuff. Much of it turns on William’s boyhood as a Cambridge chorister, and a mysterious traumatic event. The set-up is familiar, the dialogue is flat and the characters are clichéd. We go from Charles, who arrives at school in a Rolls-Royce and bullies the poorer kids, to Gloria, whose entire personality is “sweetheart”, and whose dreadful treatment by William can only shake, never break, her love.

A Terrible Kindness is sentimental to many a fault. In the Aberfan sections alone, its approach doesn’t seem out of place: the bereaved parents are true pictures of grief, and later, the words on their children’s graves have a plaintive naïveté. But away from there, in Cambridge or London, this Faber “lead debut” reads like average young-adult fare. What happened in the Welsh valleys that year is enraging, compelling, haunting – for a storyteller, the works. The great Aberfan novel, however, is apparently yet to come.

A Terrible Kindness is published by Faber at £14.99. To order your copy for £12.99 call or visit the Telegraph Bookshop

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