Bringing Family History to Life: Ancestry, by Simon Mawer, Revised

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DNA test kits may have been all the rage in recent years, but what can they really tell us about our ancestors? Cold, hard data is, by definition, neither sentimental nor sympathetic. Or says Simon Mawer, whose latest novel asks where, in our austere conception of the past as a graveyard of artifacts, bones, facts and figures, are the personalities of the dead? ‘Where is the flesh and blood?’

Mawer is well known for skillfully plundering the treasure chest of history to serve his fiction. His previous forays into the past, such as World War II and Man Booker’s shortlist The glass roomfrom 2009, struck an admirable balance between meticulous historical accuracy and deeply original imaginative character studies. However, her 12th novel differs from these by dealing with a much more personal story.

In effect, AncestryThe colorful characters of aren’t characters at all: they’re Mawer’s true ancestors. The central action takes place in the middle of the 19th century and follows the turbulent life and loves of Mawer’s great-great-grandparents. First, we witness the evolution of the love story between Abraham Block, an illiterate and “capricious” sailor, and Naomi Lulham, a young seamstress yearning for a fresh start. Later, we meet George Mawer, a corporal in the 50th Regiment of Foot, and his wife, Ann, who experience the countless vicissitudes of nomadic military life together before being separated by the Crimean War.

Little is known about them except for what is stated in official documents, “those meticulous Victorian records”, newspaper reports and, indeed, what was passed directly to Mawer as a wave family legend. Poetic license must fill in the gaps, he concludes: “What happens behind closed doors is not the stuff of documents but of novels.

But that sums up the main problem of the novel. It is Mawer’s characteristic attention to historical detail, not his looser and often mundane reimaginings of private conversations, that provide the book’s most moving and uplifting moments. Minutiae such as drinking raki, smoking hookah and a stay at ‘Seaman’s Hospital’, HMS battleship (to treat a penile ulcer), imbue Abraham’s maritime adventures with a true depth of experience. Elsewhere, however, the dialogue feels overloaded, making the characters somewhat one-dimensional. There are only so many times the women in the book can be called badass before the praise rings hollow.

Although he once claimed “I am a novelist”. I don’t want to tell the truth,” Mawer is at his best when painting an accurate portrait of the times. When he does, not only do his characters feel fully formed, but the details and data might look likeable after all.


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