Written by Simon Mawer
Review by Douglas Kemp

Recent years have seen the growing popularity of what is generally known as auto-fiction, in which the writer utilizes elements of his or her own life, and casts it into a fictional format. So while the substratum may be based upon events and facts, it is still classified as a story. This can be confusing for the reader, as one is never fully sure what happened and what is part of the author’s rich imagination. Simon Mawer’s new novel has at its core the narrative of his ancestors. While much is supposition and the artistic creation of plausible events, the foundation of the structure has reliable historical sources such as birth and marriage registers, and shipping manifests.

The novel focuses on two strands of the writer’s distant family in the middle part of the 19th century that set off and continue the chain of connections that lead down the generations to the author, with ancestral accounts re-created and embellished. Mawer demonstrates the utterly improbable set of circumstances that have had to occur in order for him to be around on the planet in the 21st century—the same infinite complex set of events that have resulted in the life of us all—not unlike the indescribably strange occasions given the inexorable but uncontrollable laws of natural selection. The historical context is excellent and well written.

This is an absorbing account of his family, a fictional account in a descriptive setting. The form may seem a little unconventional, but it succeeds. Even though, as Mawer quite rightly points out, the incomplete family history does not usually have the tidy and fulfilling ends that fiction possesses. “In life, unlike in novels, things happen like this: people just turn up, interest with your own story for a while, then disappear”. This novel should also not just disappear.