Thursday, September 8, 2022

Book Review: "Ancestry" by Simon Mawer

Anyone who has discovered conflicting or confusing genealogical records will appreciate the difficulty of constructing a plausible narrative to explain what was happening during a certain period in an ancestor's life. 

Famed novelist Simon Mawer had a variety of real-life genealogical documents in hand, plus old family photos, when he wrote his latest book, Ancestry, a blend of historical fiction and biographical fiction loosely based on his family tree. The records didn't tell one cohesive story--instead, they revealed tantalizing clues to underlying dynamics that shaped ancestors' decisions and actions from the early 1800s toward the end of the 19th century.

Flesh and blood ancestors

Mawer's interest, readers learn in the preface on page 1, is in trying to understand who these ancestors really were: "Where is the flesh and blood? Who were the people? What did they feel? Where have they gone?" Being a novelist, he used fiction as a way to explore what key ancestors thought and did during their lives, sometimes offering more than one possible explanation to fit the known facts.

In the first section, the main characters are his great-great-grandparents Abraham Block (who goes to sea and winds up missing) and Naomi Lulham (a naive seamstress striving for a better life). Mawer describes Abraham's seafaring life and Naomi's challenges at home with great attention to social and historical context, imagining their inner lives with fictional creativity.

The author quickly ties up genealogical loose ends by summarizing what happened to the descendants of these ancestors in just three pages. Having followed the fictionalized trials and tribulations of Abraham and Naomi for a number of chapters, I wished for a little more detail (factual too) about later generations.

In the second section, readers meet the author's military ancestor George Mawer and his Irish bride Ann Scanlon, who bunks with her husband in the barracks as his regiment is posted thither and yon. Again, Mawer combines solid research and creative imagination to describe what both ancestors will face, physically and emotionally, during George's military career leading up to the Crimean War, which will change the family tree forever.

Documentation combined with imagination

As a genealogy buff, my favorite parts of the book were the reproductions of the actual documents, with Mawer's interpretation of what was officially said and what was not reflected on the documents. Such as the name of a baby's father, a fact obscured on more than official birth record. I also appreciated the way the author focused on particular details to convey the feeling of everyday life in the mid-1800s. 

The Guardian's reviewer was unhappy that actual documentation interrupted the fictional flow of the creative story line (the opposite of my experience). The reviewer for the The Spectator cited the author's ability to vividly paint historical details as a particular strength of this book (as was my experience). The Financial Times reviewer especially appreciated the way Mawer created female ancestors who were "anything but ordinary" on the page (I agree, although I don't necessarily agree with the motivations ascribed to these women by the author).

My last thought: If only Mawer had included a family tree! Even a very basic tree (protecting the privacy of recent generations) would have been helpful in following along as babies were born and grew up. 


  1. Sounds interesting - I've read at least one of his other books, so will definitely look for this one :)

  2. Thank you for the review.

  3. I read all those newspaper reviews too and I absolutely agree with this blogger