When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale


I wasn’t present for this particular discussion but a catch up at the next book meeting suggested that most people found the book slightly irriatating, especially the mis-spelt words and the narration from the boy’s point of view was incredibly grating.  Most people had guessed what was happening quite early on in the book but as one book member commented ‘it still wasn’t as bad as Thomas Hardy!’

Below is a review from The Guardian by Joanna Briscoe:-

Child narrators have rarely had it so good. Jane Eyre, Huckleberry Finn and David Copperfield were precocious chroniclers of novelty and outrage; Holden Caulfield and Scout Finch added to the tradition with an idiosyncratic intensity of voice, and recently an increasing number of major novelists have used youthful protagonists to express the absurdity of adult life.

Contemporary authors tend to give these figures special characteristics which shape how they filter the world. David Mitchell chose a 13-year-old stammerer to make sense of injustice in Black Swan Green. Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time features an autistic narrator; Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is told by an obsessive polymath; and MJ Hyland’s Carry Me Down is narrated by a lie-detecting child giant.

But Matthew Kneale’s nine-year-old hero Lawrence is affecting in his very ordinariness. A devotee of Tintin, Lego and Hotwheels, he is infatuated with Roman history and space, and is selfish and painfully courageous in turn. The entire novel consists of Lawrence’s misspelt, erratically punctuated chronicle of a trip to Rome with a pest of a younger sister and a mother who is convinced that the children’s absent father is in pursuit. This is a daring, artistically satisfying and at times wearying experiment.

Lawrence is clearly accustomed to steering his single mother Hannah through routine trauma, but the catalyst for more dramatic action is her growing paranoia about her ex-husband: “She jumped up a bit when she saw me, she said ‘Lawrence.’ I said ‘whats wrong mum?’ and she went really quiet, she said ‘what dyou mean?’ so I said ‘somethings gone wrong, I can see it in your face.’ She closed her eyes a bit, she said ‘oh Lawrence, I don’t want to upsit you with all of this’ and she sort of squinted her eyes.”

Certain that the children’s father is about to intervene, she decides to escape to Rome. Lawrence has to supervise the packing and generally ward off the breakdown that is looming. The car is abandoned, and Hannah, children, caged pet and doll’s house are flung between rescue attempts, disaster and reluctant philanthropy as they land on the floors of a series of old friends. Lawrence eats “crussons” for breakfast in a city whose glorious architecture is “old and dirty”; falls out with a boy called “Gabrielley”, and generally second-guesses his mother’s moods to prevent psychological collapse, before indulging in age-appropriate eruptions of materialism. Hannah’s convictions about Lawrence’s father intensify till her claim that he is encamped in a flat opposite in an attempt to poison all of them affects Lawrence’s perceptions. The family’s predicament reaches crisis point; the emotions peak to almost unbearable levels.

This narrative is heartbreakingly moving. As Lawrence says: “But then I thought of something, it was like I just notised it, I thought ‘I cant get upset too actually or there will be nobody left.'” He maintains an upbeat attitude, his anger largely expressed during rare moments of maternal stability. Glimpses of Hannah’s mental agony as Lawrence attempts to wipe up the mess of their lives can be read as a cautionary tale: kids take it all in. The child is a surprisingly reliable narrator. Yet this device has its problems. When We Were Romans is dominated by voice. Kneale is a spectacular ventriloquist, and Lawrence’s narration is convincing and faultlessly sustained – the author, with his subtlety and empathy, never offers laughs at the child’s expense.

The novel is perhaps too reliant on that created voice. Lawrence’s stream of consciousness soon asserts its authority, but then babbles on with little other means of narrative support until the middle of the novel sags. However, the meanderings are brief, and all is saved when the undertow of mental illness rises up to drive the pace once again. Full of restraint and artistic integrity, this is a poignant, haunting and lovely novel.

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