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Fleshing out family history: Ancestry, by Simon Mawer, reviewed

30 July 2022

9:00 AM

30 July 2022

9:00 AM

Ancestry Simon Mawer

Little, Brown, pp.432, 18.99

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

Mawer is well known for expertly pillaging the treasure chest of history to serve his fiction. His previous forays into the past, such as the second-world-war-era and Man Booker-shortlisted The Glass Roomof 2009, struck an admirable balance between meticulous historical accuracy and deeply original imaginative character studies. However, his 12th novel differs from these in dealing with a far more personal history altogether.

Indeed, Ancestry’s colourful cast of characters aren’t characters at all: they’re Mawer’s actual ancestors. The central action takes place during the mid-19th century and follows the turbulent lives and loves of Mawer’s great-great-grandparents. First, we witness the evolving love affair between Abraham Block, an illiterate and ‘wayward’ sailor, and Naomi Lulham, a young dressmaker yearning for a fresh start. Later, we meet George Mawer, a corporal in the 50th Regiment of Foot, and his wife, Ann, who together experience the myriad vicissitudes of nomadic army life before being separated by the Crimean War.

Little is known about them except for what is set out in official documents, ‘those meticulous Victorian registers’, newspaper reports and, indeed, what has been passed down directly to Mawer as vague family legend. Poetic licence must fill in the gaps, he concludes: ‘What goes on behind closed doors is not the stuff of documents but of novels.’

But this encapsulates the novel’s main problem. It is Mawer’s characteristic attention to historical detail, not his looser, often trite reimaginings of private conversations, that provide the most moving and exhilarating moments in the book. Minutiae such as drinking raki, smoking narghile and a stay at the ‘Seaman’s Hospital’, HMS Dreadnaught (to treat a penile ulcer), imbue Abraham’s seafaring adventures with a real depth of experience. Elsewhere, though, the dialogue feels overworked, rendering the characters somewhat one-dimensional. There are only so many times the women in the book can be called tough ol’ cookies before the praise rings hollow.

Despite once claiming ‘I’m a novelist. I don’t want to tell the truth’, Mawer is at his best when painting a faithful portrait of the period. When he does so, his characters not only feel fully formed but details and data might just seem sympathetic after all.

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