Raffles Reads: A Terrible Kindness

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Raffles Reads is a collaboration between Raffles Press and Times Reads which aims to promote a reading culture among Singaporean students.

By Jolene Yee Xin Yi (23S03A) 

Rating: 4.5/5 

“When we go through impossible things, someone, or something, will help us, if we let them.”

A Terrible Kindness is a simultaneously heart-wrenching and heart-warming tale of a volunteer embalmer’s road to redemption and reconciliation. As a literary fiction novel, this book appeals to those interested in unique storylines, gripping narratives and fresh story settings.

Before I dive into the book’s plot proper, let me introduce its author, Jo Browning Wroe: she grew up in a crematorium in Birmingham, England, and is presently a seasoned writer who specialises in creative writing.  

Jo Browning Wroe, the author of A Terrible Kindness | Source: The Guardian

The story unfolds with its protagonist, William Lavery, finding himself caught in the aftermath of the collapse of a colliery spoil tip in 1966 Aberfan. The Aberfan disaster was a calamity that took the lives of more than a hundred Welsh school children when an avalanche of coal waste cascaded down a rain-saturated hillside, wrecking everything in its path, including the Pantglas Junior School (where most of the children attended). 

This was a traumatic tragedy that left William with scarring memories of a broken village, lifeless bodies of children (that he had to embalm) and distraught parents, haunting him time and again in the form of nightmarish flashbacks playing out the vivid and visceral horror he ever so keenly felt. 

A photograph of rescue workers at the site of the 1966 Aberfan disaster | Source: BBC News 

William’s experience at Aberfan left such an indelible mark on him he developed an aversion to parenthood – something that proved later on to be a tricky knot in his relationship with his partner, Gloria, that can only be undone when he learns to stop inflicting pain not just upon himself, but those whom he loves as well. 

Nevertheless, the book concludes with a happy ending (yes, William and Gloria decided to have children eventually) thanks to a kind Aberfan survivor, whose advice and assistance liberated William from his enduring trauma. 

William’s mental and emotional turmoil is compounded by the dark and difficult times of his childhood – the death of his father, the estrangement from his mother and a falling-out with a very close friend. Yet, it is through weathering the trials and tribulations of his life that William experiences the full spectrum of human emotions, from jealousy, resentment and guilt, to relief, contentment and joy. 

Beyond delicately navigating William’s most intimate emotions and vulnerabilities, Jo Browning Wroe also raises difficult and uncomfortable subjects concerning the social mores and attitudes of that era, such as that of homophobia and deep-rooted prejudice, in a confrontation between William and his mother. 

Something about the book that confounded me, however, was the sequence of events that occurred in William’s life, as it is not presented in a chronological order. I had to piece together the various snippets of his life across the chapters in order to get the full picture. 

That aside, what sets A Terrible Kindness apart from other emotional healing books is its debunking of the old adage ‘time heals all wounds’ – that time is not the magic bullet to forgetting the pain of the past; it only serves to smoothen and soften the sharp edges of grief and sorrow. 

Indeed, as illustrated by William’s character development, healing is supposed to be an active process. Following the ordeal he had to go through, William was ready to throw in the towels – he pulled out of his favourite pastime (singing) and shut himself off from his closest kins. But by the last chapter, he eventually understood that avoidance is not the answer. He gradually processed his pains and wounds and finally managed to move on, learning to proactively mend his broken and fragmented interpersonal relationships instead of dodging the issues out of fear and anxiety, which would only cause them to fester.   

Overall, a highly recommended read! I truly enjoyed and appreciated the unravelling of the themes of ‘love’, ‘life’ and ‘loss’, and the realistic representation of William’s character as a ‘flawed human but loved soul’. What left a deep impression on me as well, was the book’s timely reminder of the gift of family, the gift of friendship, and – perhaps, the most elusive of all – the gift of forgiveness, not only towards others, but also towards ourselves.

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