Ancestry, A Novel
This book defies categorisation. It’s a history, it’s a novel, almost it’s a kind of archaeology, an investigation into the reality of the past and an exploration of that uncertain borderland which lies between fact and fiction. Using archive material Mawer has picked through the traces left behind by his mid-nineteenth-century ancestors to find out how they might have been and what might have happened to them. There were few artefacts – a funeral notice, a Crimean War campaign medal – handed down through the generations because these men and women possessed so little, no diaries or letters largely because they were illiterate. In fact there is nothing much to show that they were once alive beyond those traces that are common to all families: entries in registers of birth, marriage and death, census data and occasional hints in newspapers.
Yet this is no dry history. While taking care never to step outside the bounds of historical evidence, Mawer has put flesh and blood on the bare bones, employing the skills of a novelist to reconstruct long-dead ancestors and give them voice. The result is gripping and heart-breaking, imbued with the vitality of Dickensian London, the atmosphere of seafaring in the days when sail was just beginning to give way to steam, and the terror of trench warfare in the Crimea. There is love, both open and legal but also hidden and illicit. Above all there is the bloody-minded courage of the women who, as their men fell by the wayside, carried the family forward from Victorian revolution into the twentieth century.
From the Mail on Sunday, 31 July 2022
Mawer has crafted an idiosyncratic gem of a book... both very readable and a celebration of the extraordinary resilience of ordinary people.
From the Spectator, 30 July 2022
...moving and exhilarating...
From the Daily Mail, 21 July 2022
...a metafictional hybrid that spotlights its own invention. It draws on the wispy archival records of Mawer’s Victorian ancestry to imagine the lives of, among others, a London seamstress and a soldier sent to the Crimea.
Told with brio, the gutsy narrative evokes the messiness and fragility of everyday life in the 19th century.
I was moved by Mawer’s defence of storytelling as a vital tool of historical recovery...
From the Times, 19 July 2022
Ancestry is utterly absorbing...so cleverly constructed and beautifully written that when tragedy strikes I cried all the more for knowing that these were not entirely fictional beings but real people made vivid again by their talented great-grandson*.
(*Actually great-great grandson but we'll let that pass. ed.)
From the Financial Times, 16 July 2022
Out of the ordinary.
Genre-bending between dramatisation and investigation has become a mainstay of storytelling through podcasts: the narrator as detective whose arc of discovery runs alongside the story proper. In Ancestry, Simon Mawer... shows it can be gripping on the page too. His new novel is an intriguing blend of archival research and fictionalised accounts of the life histories of his own forebears.
...He is in thrall to the resilience that his female ancestors display despite endless childbirth and infant deaths and the monstrous hypocrises of the time... I won't forget these women whose DNA he is so proud of inheriting, or the voices he conjures for them. They were anything but ordinary.
Little, Brown UK 2022