Thursday, 26 January 2023

Clare's review of Ancestry by Simon Mawer

Front cover of Ancestry by Simon Mawer

Simon Mawer’s Ancestry is a historical novel with a difference – a brilliant feat of writing, which combines all the characteristics of an engaging fictional re-creation of the past, alongside an account of the process of researching family history. It smoothly crosses boundaries between the genres.

Using documentary evidence of his forebears, most of which is very scanty (register entries of births, marriages and deaths), Mawer recreates the lives and experiences of some of his memorable ancestors. This task of reconstruction and of speculation about the missing elements of the characters’ stories is conveyed through authorial comment. Then he seamlessly enters the lives and inhabits the worlds of these working class people, who are so vividly portrayed. There is no shortage of tragedy, loss, hardship and poverty in those precarious 19th century lives: the hard-working, syphilitic sailor Abraham Block, Naomi his resilient wife, George Mawer the tough private infantryman who perishes in the horrors of the Crimean War and Annie his feisty and resourceful widow who resorts to whatever means she can to support herself and her many children.

This novel is a compelling read for lovers of historical fiction, a generous lesson for writers of this genre and a revelation for those engaged in researching their family’s history