Ancestry by Simon Mawer | #bookreview | @smamawer @WaltScottPrize @LittleBrownUK

If you are a regular reader of the blog, you will probably know that I really enjoy historical fiction. You may also know that I enjoy genealogy research. I have traced my family back to about the early 1800s, occasionally into the mid to late 1700s. Most of that has been through researching birth, marriage and death (BMD) and census records at the National Records of Scotland centre here in Edinburgh. Although you can fairly easily find out basic facts and dates and glean information such as where a family moved or what jobs they did over time, this really is just the bare bones of a family’s history. For example, in my research I discovered a great great great grandmother in police cells on census night, a great great grandfather who was found drowned in a local river and a 4x great grandmother who hung herself. All these things I found out from basic census or BMD records, or newspaper clippings online, but have no way of finding out any more about the people or what happened to them. What Simon Mawer has done here is take the basic facts he knows about his own ancestors and build on them to create a brilliantly compelling read.

From the information found in records, Simon Mawer has imagined what life may have been like for his ancestors. He has used historical facts and social history and brought them together in such an interesting way. I really enjoyed reading about the various characters who I hesitate to call characters since, of course, many were real people. The challenges faced by his Victorian ancestors and the precarious nature of life are clear, particularly for women. The style of writing was really original. The author had a brilliant way of putting you right in the middle of his characters’ lives one minute, then making you feel like you were part of the story the next and then putting himself in the role of an omnipresent narrator.

I’m not surprised that this has been included on the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2023 longlist. It fully deserves its place in my opinion. Ancestry is a really original and fresh take on historical fiction, blending fact and fiction seamlessly and I loved it. Highly recommended, one of the best books I’ve read this year. On a personal and more poignant note, I know that my late dad would have loved this book too as he was so interested in family history. Ancestry is a fitting tribute to all who have come before us.

Full details about the book

The past is another country and we are all its exiles. Banished forever, we look back in fascination and wonder at this mysterious land. Who were the people who populated it?

Almost two hundred years ago, Abraham, an illiterate urchin, scavenges on a Suffolk beach and dreams of running away to sea… Naomi, a seventeen-year-old seamstress, sits primly in a second class carriage on the train from Sussex to London and imagines a new life in the big city… George, a private soldier of the 50th Regiment of Foot, marries his Irish bride, Annie, in the cathedral in Manchester and together they face married life under arms. Now these people exist only in the bare bones of registers and census lists but they were once real enough. They lived, loved, felt joy and fear, and ultimately died. But who were they? And what indissoluble thread binds them together?

Simon Mawer’s compelling and original novel puts flesh on our ancestors’ bones to bring them to life and give them voice. He has created stories that are gripping and heart-breaking, from the squalor and vitality of Dickensian London to the excitement of seafaring in the last days of sail and the horror of the trenches of the Crimea. There is birth and death; there is love, both open and legal but also hidden and illicit. Yet the thread that connects these disparate figures is something that they cannot have known – the unbreakable bond of family.

Ancestry is published by Little, Brown and available now in hardback, audiobook
and digital formats. The paperback will be published in June this year.
I borrowed my copy from my local library.

About the author

Simon Mawer was born in 1948 in England, and spent his childhood there, in Cyprus and in Malta. He then moved to Italy, where he and his family lived for more than thirty years, and taught at the British International School in Rome. He and his wife currently live in Hastings. Simon Mawer is the author of several novels including the Man Booker shortlisted The Glass RoomThe Girl Who Fell from the Sky and Tightrope.

7 thoughts on “Ancestry by Simon Mawer | #bookreview | @smamawer @WaltScottPrize @LittleBrownUK

  1. I love the look of this one and your ancestors sounds intriguing Joanne! I’m fascinated by the subject and love watching the TV progs although I’ve never done anything about my own family history. Will see if my library has this.


  2. This sounds right up my street. Thanks for the recommendation. Have you read Home by Julie Myerson. It’s one of my favourite books ever and is about all the people who had lived in her house – non-fiction but with a bit of imagination used.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. It does sound really good, I might see if our library has this. Netgalley has made me a complete stranger to my local library I’m sorry to say. I always admire those who trace their ancestors, I don’t think I’d ever have the patience, though I’d love to know about those who went before.

    Liked by 1 person

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