His father and grandfather served in the Royal Air Force. As a typical nomadic military family, his childhood was spent, amongst various moves in England, some years in Cyprus and Malta. These experiences gave him a love of the Mediterranean world and a taste for exile. From the age of eight he was educated in boarding schools, which forced upon him the need to preserve a secret, interior world in a society where privacy was at a premium, training that was significant in his development as a writer. After university he taught biology in the Channel Islands, then moved to Scotland, then Malta, before moving to Rome where he has lived ever since. Teaching and family took up much of his time, and it wasn't until his fortieth year that his first novel, Chimera, was published by Hamish Hamilton, a British book publishing house founded in 1931 which now belongs to Penguin Books. It won the McKitterick Prize for first novels. Mendel's Dwarf followed three works of modest success and established him as a writer of note on both sides of the Atlantic. The New York Times judged it one of the "books to remember" of 1998. The option on a film version was sold first to Uzo and then to Barbra Streisand. The Gospel of Judas and The Fall followed. He published Swimming to Ithaca, a novel partially inspired by his childhood on the island of Cyprus. A book called A place in Italy (1992), written in the wake of A year in Provence, recounts the first two years of his life in an Italian village. Gregor Mendel: Planting the Seeds of Genetics, another non-fiction book, was published in conjunction with the Field Museum of Chicago as a companion volume to the museum's exhibition of the same name. In 2009, Mawer published The Glass Room, a novel about a modernist villa built in a Czech city in 1928. Mawer has acknowledged that the book was primarily inspired by the Villa Tugendhat which was designed by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and built in Brno in the Czech Republic in 1928–30. Mawer has lived in Italy for more than three decades, but her considers home to be where the mind is.