Mila de Villiers interviews Jo Browning Wroe: Treating a tragedy with respect

31 July 2022 - 00:00 By Mila de Villiers

Mila de Villiers talks to Jo Browning Wroe about her best-selling, book club favourite, A Terrible Kindness

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Jo Browning Wroe, author of 'A Terrible Kindness'.
Jo Browning Wroe, author of 'A Terrible Kindness'.
Image: Martin Bond

A Terrible Kindness ★★★★
Jo Browning Wroe
Faber & Faber

“It represents a dreadful event but it isn’t a terribly depressing read. There’s lightness and humour and it reflects humanity,” British author Jo Browning Wroe says of her debut novel, A Terrible Kindness, which recounts the 1966 Aberfan landslide tragedy which engulfed Pantglas Junior School, resulting in the death of 116 children.

Frantic parents dug through the rubble with their bare hands. Miraculously, some children were pulled out alive in the first two hours, but since 11.00 that morning, there had been no more cause for celebration. Over 140 bodies needed rescuing, Browning Wroe writes of the tragedy which exposes her protagonist, 19-year-old embalmer William Lavery, to “see things you’ll never forget”, as per his uncle, for William offers to aid in rescuing children the day after he graduates.

What an appalling world he’s in, where the lucky ones are those able to identify their child’s dead body, is one of the many disturbing thoughts William is confronted with as he prepares the dead bodies for parents.

Conveying the aftermath of the disaster with dignity was a priority for the author: “They’re already fractured, they have a strong sense of loss. Every sentence I wrote had that in mind. I try to communicate this tragedy with respect.”

is Browning Wroe's debut novel.
A Terrible Kindness is Browning Wroe's debut novel.
Image: Supplied

Browning Wroe considered both Embalming and The Embalmer as titles (“I thought it might put people off”) before deciding on A Terrible Kindness: a phrase which “jumped out” and “that just seemed right”, she says.

The phrase appears seven years after the tragedy when William and his childhood love Gloria visit Aberfan; surrounded by graves of children who didn’t survive the landslide, a woman seats herself on a bench beside Gloria, gently inquiring why they have come to the cemetery:

Gloria clears her throat. ‘It’s not morbid curiosity, I promise you. My husband’s an embalmer. He came to help when it happened.’ William doesn’t turn round, but a heat rises in him to hear Gloria call him her husband. ‘He wanted to pay his respects.’ ‘I remember them,’ the woman says, ‘a terrible job. A terrible kindness they did for us. Something none of us wanted to think about.’

“It’s always been in my landscape,” Browning Wroe says of William’s vocation; she grew up in a crematorium in Birmingham. “For many years, I thought I had quite a dull childhood,” she chuckles, adding she only realised this was “something really unusual” when a classmate at Cambridge was workshopping a piece set around a funeral which featured “the very crematorium I grew up in!”, she exclaims.

“Very casually, I said ‘I grew up there’,” which fascinated this man who “was obsessed with graveyards”, she says of the revelation.

Browning Wroe cites William’s “sense of self-jeopardy” as another similarity they share, as “I have a tendency to do that”.

William’s relationship with his mother, Evelyn, is also explored throughout the novel (his father — who ran an undertaking firm with his twin brother Robert and business associate Howard — died when William was eight; a hardship which still deeply affects him).

The close bond William forms with his uncle and Howard alongside Evelyn’s insistence that the musically gifted William should pursue music — as opposed to undertaking — as a profession results in their estrangement.

“We all have our failings, definitely,” Browning Wroe cogitates of the increasingly tense relationship between mother and son. “We’re all a mixture of good and bad.”

Music plays a prominent role in  Browning Wroe and William’s lives: a distressing childhood memory is evoked when William hears Allegri’s Miserere on the radio (“I had to listen to Miserere so carefully to describe what’s happening,” Browning Wroe says of accurately depicting the scene).

“Writing this story has connected me to music again,” the author adds. “Music is always relevant to what I’m writing.”

Sweet Caroline fans rejoice, for the book Browning Wroe is working on at the moment is set in the 1970s, and, yes: “There’s lots of Neil Diamond!”

Click here to buy A Terrible Kindness

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