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Review: ‘Ancestry’ is a beautiful fiction about a real family

If you’ve ever tried to trace your family tree you will probably have come across a whole load of names and dates of people you know nothing about. You might cobble together some information from census data or other records, or you may be lucky enough to have someone in your family who remembers something. But unless you are an aristocrat, beyond a generation or two, your predecessors are likely reduced to a name and some dates.

Who exactly were they? What did they look like? What did they do with their lives?

These are intriguing questions that can lead to endless speculation. Author Simon Mawer has attempted to fill in the blanks of his own family tree by fictionalising their stories in a fascinating biographical novel called Ancestry

Starting with his great-great-grandfather Abraham, Mawer weaves an intricate tale of the people who ultimately united two branches of his family. Set mostly in the mid to late 19th Century, this cleverly written book brings these people to life. 

While it is based on real people and some real events, most of the stories and all of the dialogue is pure speculation. At one point, Mawer offers more than one possible scenario for a long-dead relative. One strand is hopeful, the other not so. 

The stories are steeped in the turbulent Victorian age with its hypocritical moral code which offered opportunity for some, but penury and hardship for the working class. Over the course of a century, Mawer’s family faced challenges and a few tragedies, but ultimately a few generations later benefited from the huge changes wrought by the industrial and social revolutions of that century. 

This is a beautifully descriptive story that shows the futility of war, the awful conditions in society, and the contempt shown by the ruling elite towards those beneath them. Yet it also shows the determination and the love of people that history mostly ignores. 

What comes out of this is a rich colourful tapestry of family history. His writing is so good that it is possible to ‘hear’ the voices, and even ‘see’ the expressions on their faces. The humour, the anger, the coldness, and the passion are all mixed into an emotional and rewarding story that I believe encourages the reader to begin to re-imagine and reassess their own family histories. 


A review copy of Ancestry was supplied by Books A Plenty in Tauranga New Zealand. You can purchase the book from them here.


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