Wednesday, August 13, 2008

When We Were Romans--Matthew Kneale

Nine-year-old Lawrence is the man in his family. He carefully watches over his willful little sister, Jemima, and his mother, Hannah. When Hannah becomes convinced that their estranged father is stalking them, the family flees London and heads for Rome, where Hannah lived happily as a young woman. For Lawrence, fascinated by stories of popes and emperors, Rome is an adventure. Though they are short of money, and move from home to home, staying with his mother’s old friends, little by little their new life seems to be taking shape. But the trouble that brought them to Italy will not quite leave them in peace.(Random House/Doubleday)

Author Matthew Kneale received the Whitbread Book of the Year Award and was short-listed for the Booker Prize for English Passengers. His latest novel, When We Were Romans, is a fascinating look at a dysfunctional family. The themes of fear and longing for safety are reflected not only in Lawrence's family troubles, but also in his ruminations on Roman history and science:
Its strange but sometimes thinking about the universe makes me feel funny, I want to hold on to something, like the table or a window sill, just so I won't drop up into space forever. Sometimes I don't like it, actually, I want to say "go away solar system, go away galaxies, go away universe, I don't want to know about how you go on forever.
The narrative voice of a 9-year-old boy comes through clearly in this work, and would succeed equally well without the misspelling peppered sparingly throughout the text, a device which, judging from reader reviews, may be more distracting than effective. (For those who regularly read the actual written work of children, the occasional spelling error scarcely registers.) Far more effective is Lawrence's naive take on the world around him, the people he loves, and his own actions:
I said "don't hit me with a pillow, Jemima, you really mustn't all right" and d'you know that's just what she did she just dropped her quil and then ran over to Freddie's bed and got one.... I thought "I must stop her" so I said "Whatever you do you mustn't do this" and I hit the wall a bit with my pillow. It was just to make her see what she mustn't do, but some of the poems fell down, it was an accident.
(There are no adults present in the above scene, but any adult who's walked in on child-led mayhem will find it all too familiar.)

The challenge in a first-person narrative is to show the reader what the narrator/protagonist doesn't see. Kneale accomplishes this with finesse using the actions of other characters, Lawrence's misinterpretation of what he sees and hears, and his own actions, all of which show far more than he's able to tell the reader. (A brilliant example of the old writing craft adage, "Show, don't tell").

Alternately funny and heartbreaking as Lawrence attempts to help make things right again for his family, this story puts a unique spin on the effects of parental mental illness on children and manages to be an entertaining read in the process.


  1. I really enjoyed your review. You put words to some of the things I felt about the book but didn't think of in my review, particularly Kneale's finesse and subtlety.

    I wasn't put off by the spelling. Once I realized it was purposefully messed up, I pretty much ignored it to get to the story.

    I didn't see the fear and longing for safety themes relating to Lawrence's story when I read it. But now that you mention it, it is very true. I saw a lot of the rage and desire for control in a lot of those tid bits... particularly Nero's desire to kill his mother.

  2. The spelling drove me nuts. Maybe because it seemed inconsistent. A more difficult word he would get right and then misspell an easy one. No, I just found it distracting.
    And while, overall, I would say I like the book, I did have some issues..beside the spelling thing.
    A couple that I mention on my review.

    Did I mention that drove me nuts?? lol