Ancestry: A Novel by Simon Mawer review – one for the whole family | Biography books

Jhere’s something compelling if slightly solipsistic about finding your own ancestry. With digitized and searchable records, all the frustrating blanks in your family tree can now be fleshed out in an attractive way. Sometimes these blanks will reveal something remarkable and dramatic, but like any BBC One fan Who do you think you are? will attest, even mundane tales can be oddly touching.

Simon Mawer, Booker in the running for The glass room in 2009, now enters this arena with his new novel (his word). Consisting largely of fictionally presented chapters from the lives of his own 19th-century ancestors, his narrative progression is peppered with authorial interruptions as Mawer seeks to remind us of his underlying reality. These interruptions take several forms: register inscriptions photographed on copper; his own thoughts on the nature of his project (“Could be the start of a Dickensian novel, couldn’t it?”); and somewhat pedantic footnotes assuring that these are “the very words, taken from his letter home” or that he hasn’t misspelled “Babarbadoes”.

From this “Dickensian” opening on a Suffolk beach, where the young Abraham Block strips a drowned corpse of his two golden sovereigns, we enter his adult life at sea. But with procreation as the inevitable driving force of the story, we quickly walk to a train carriage with an ingenuous seamstress coming to London for the first time. And there’s a Limiter in the seat next to her, exploiting their forced closeness to initiate her seduction. Yet she lands on her feet when, now pregnant, she rents a room from Abraham’s uncle near the docks. And so Mawer ancestry, on the maternal side, is ongoing.

Part two, of course, requires a full reboot, with a move to the fatherly side of things. We thus dive into the life of George Mawer, a private of the 50th Regiment of Foot. From his marriage to a certain Ann Scanlon, we move with him from barracks to garrison and vice versa. She, like all Army women, will be sharing her curtained dormitory bed, and offspring will soon follow. But family life is curtailed by the British government’s decision (perhaps not for the last time) to do something about Russians in Crimea. George’s regiment soon embarks for unknown lands.

The armies are inundated with papers, almost always meticulously preserved, and it is then – to its detriment – ​​that the novel begins to be ruled by the inordinate availability of these archives. The result is an almost exhaustive fictionalization of the marches, skirmishes and encampments of the 50th; with a pedantry reminiscent of Tristram’s Uncle Toby, we are given the precise dimensions of the trench and the parapet.

But the Siege of Sevastopol, evocatively fictionalized as it is, can’t help but feel like a history lesson when the story we really want to follow is Ann’s. She is now back in Lincoln and thrown into parochial charity with those little Mawer ancestors. Thanks to a name mentioned once in family lore, Mawer is able to establish a connection with a single member of this parish committee. He then offers us a choice of scenarios to combine these two elements: ranging from the call for tenders to the functional through the purely monetized. But again, Mawer steps in to tell us that these are just guesses, kind of undermining the whole premise of his own project.

These fictionalized elements are always believable, even if they are sometimes too detailed. So it’s a shame that, rather than letting his characters grow and interact, as any novel requires, Mawer regularly sneaks onto the page to remind us that, say, “that particular rumor turned out to be true.” These reminders of his research only serve to disempower the characters and defuse any danger in the narration. Things are not helped by a prose that is a little too usual: the tones are “soft” and the hair, more than once, comes in “shock”.

Mawer himself concedes that the problem with any retelling of the past is “how to get into someone’s mind who has no idea what’s going to happen”. But that’s exactly what novelists do – and it can only be done when they’re freed from the murderous hand of history and the hard work you’ve done to unearth it.

Ancestry: a novel by Simon Mawer is published by Little, Brown (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Irene B. Bowles