There’s something compelling, if slightly solipsistic, about researching one’s ancestors. Now, thanks to digitized and searchable records, all the frustrating gaps in your family tree can be temptingly filled. Sometimes these gaps reveal something remarkable and dramatic, but like any BBC One fan Who do you Think You Are? will confirm that even the mundane stories can be strangely touching.
Simon Mawer, Booker shortlisted for The Glass Room 2009 now enters this arena with his new novel (His Word). Consisting largely of fictionally presented chapters from the life of his own 19th-century ancestors, his narrative progression is peppered with interruptions by the author as Mawer tries to remind us of the underlying reality. These interruptions come in many forms: photographed copperplate index entries; his own thoughts on the nature of his project (“It could be the start of a Dickensian novel, couldn’t it?”); and somewhat pedantic footnotes, assuring us that these are the “exact words from his letter home” or that he is not misspelling “Babarbadoes.”
From that ‘Dickensian’ opening on a Suffolk beach, where young Abraham Block takes his two golden sovereigns from a drowned corpse, we move into his adult life at sea. But with procreation as the inevitable impetus of the story, we soon sweep over to a carriage carrying a naïve seamstress arriving in London for the first time. And on the seat next to her is a border crosser who takes advantage of her forced closeness to initiate his seduction. Despite this, she lands on her feet when, now pregnant, she rents a room with Abraham’s uncle near the docks. And so the Mawer lineage is ongoing on the maternal side.
Part two, of course, requires a complete reboot, with a switch to the fatherly side of things. So we dive into the life of George Mawer, private soldier in the 50th Infantry Regiment. Beginning with his marriage to a certain Ann Scanlon, we’ll take him from barracks to garrison and back again. She, like all army women, will share his bed in the curtained dormitory, and soon descendants will follow. But family life is being curtailed by the British government’s decision (perhaps not for the last time) to take action against the Russians in Crimea. George’s regiment soon sails to foreign lands.
Armies are awash with paperwork, which is almost always meticulously preserved, and from this point the novel begins to be dictated – to its detriment – by the disproportionate availability of these archives. The result is a near-exhaustive fictionalization of the marches, skirmishes, and camps of the 1950s; With a pedantry reminiscent of Tristram’s uncle Toby, we are told the exact dimensions of the ditch and parapet.
But the Siege of Sevastopol, however impressively fictionalized, can’t help but feel like a history lesson if the story we really want to follow is Ann’s. She’s back in Lincoln now, volunteering with those little Mawer ancestors for the community charity. Thanks to a name mentioned once in family history, Mawer is able to connect to an unmarried member of that community committee. He then offers us a choice of scenarios to bring these two together: from bidding to function to pure monetization. But again, Mawer steps in to tell us that these are just guesses, which kind of undermines the entire premise of his own project.
These fictional elements are never less than believable, if over-detailed at times. So it’s a shame that instead of allowing his characters to grow and interact like any novel demands, Mawer instead periodically sidesteps to remind us that, for example, “this particular rumor happened to be true “. These reminders of his research only serve to disempower the characters and defuse any danger in the storytelling. The prose does not seem a bit ordinary: the tones are “soft” and the hair comes to a “shock” more than once.
Mawer himself admits that the problem with any account 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 happen when they’re freed from the cruel hand of history and the hard work you’ve put into unearthing it.