Master novelist unravels the secrets of his past

Review: Vivien Horler

Ancestry a novel , by Simon Mawer (Little, Brown)

I love the cover of this book. It has a picture of a residential British street, with one half in black and white featuring a woman in Victorian dress, and the other in colour of a 21st century man in blue jeans and sneakers.

It’s a wonderful hint of what the book is about – stories of the past about virtually forgotten, unknown people, who are linked in the present by their great-great (and maybe a couple more greats) grandson.

Novelist Simon Mawer is the grandson, and he has meticulously searched various archives including military and maritime records to piece together the story of two branches of his family and their lives in the mid19th century.

These were not Downton Abbey people – they were working class, poor, and forever trembling on the edge of financial ruin.

In his “credits” section at the end of the book Mawer writes his final acknowledgements must be “my ancestors in the 19th century and the scant records they left behind. Without them a story like this would have been an entire fiction; with them I hope I have come somewhere near their truth”.

Mawer, author of the wonderful The Glass Room, which was shortlisted for the 2009 Booker Prize, has lived a life very far removed from those of his ancestors. He had part of his childhood in Cyprus, went to Oxford, and lives in Italy where he teaches biology at an international school.

Ancestry is divided into two parts: the first relating to an illiterate forefather Abraham who was born in 1831, went to sea on cargo ships, married a London seamstress called Naomi and fathered several children with her.

It was a precarious life: when Arthur was away at sea she never knew whether he’d sail safely home again – and this was in the days before the telegraph, when a sailor could be away for months with never a word from him.

In the meantime it was up to Naomi to earn money with her needle to keep the family going.

The second part tells the story of George Mawer and his Irish wife Ann. George is an infantry soldier and they start their married life in a curtained-off corner of the barracks, where they can hear the snores and grunts of the men sleeping around them, and where their love-making has to be as silent as possible.

And then in1853 the regiment was told they were to be sent to the Crimea to fight the Russians (sounds familiar). And the bad news for the soldiers’ wives was that they had to find a home for themselves and their children.

Worse, the soldiers would be paid in the field, and this was a time, remember, when a soldier couldn’t simply send the money home via an EFT. Mawer (the author, not the soldier) says the issue of soldiers’ pay to the wives left behind was resolved by the British Army only in the 1960s.

Using diligent research and his considerable story-telling skills, Mawer has written what he calls a novel, although it is one based on fact. It is warmhearted and wonderful, although it describes lives fraught with peril, not only for the sailor and the soldier but for the families left at home.

I enjoyed Ancestry very much.


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