Sunday, November 30, 2008

When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale

Sooo...I was sitting here on this cold snowy sort of day contemplating whether or not the roads might be too bad to go to church since I don't get my good tires on until tomorrow. Oh wait, I was actually thinking about how I was going to write two lovely posts about how I was going to "clean the slate" and stop reading two books. Then I went in search of pictures for the posts and was distracted by the plethora of good reviews for the one and how maybe I didn't want to stop reading the other in the first place even though I was getting impatient with it. The one I find so unbelievable but like the writing, the other I'm not so into the author's writing but still want to hear the rather interesting stories he's collected. So, I've reached an impasse. Is it these books that I really want to give up on or is it me and the fact that I'm kind of in a depressed, whiny mood and eager for some sort of change even if it's just a total clean slate when it comes to the books that I'm reading? Being prone to indecisiveness in all things, I can't seem to make up my mind. This leaves me with but one possible action, and that's to review a book that I actually did finish and very much enjoyed, though there were some tense moments at the beginning when I thought I just wouldn't be able to get into it.

That book is When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale. At its beginning, I wasn't sure if maybe it would drive me crazy, but by the end I was quite certain that Kneale had done something brilliant.

When We Were Romans is the story of Lawrence, a nine-year-old boy from England, as told by Lawrence himself. As the story begins, Lawrence, his younger sister Jemima, and their mother have just returned from a triumphant trip to a distant grocery store where they were forced to go because Lawrence's mother, Hannah, is certain that her ex-husband and the children's father is stalking them with evil intent. Even a trip to the grocery store without any unfortunate happenings is cause for celebration. Still, though, Hannah is distraught that her ex is lurking around every corner turning the neighbors against her and her children and lying in wait to do them some unspeakable harm. In an effort to escape this lingering terror, she packs up the two kids and shuttles them off to Rome, the last place she remembers being happy where the small family moves from place to place to stay with Hannah's old friends.

Lawrence renders the tale of their trip to Rome in possibly the most authentic nine-year-old voice ever executed by a grown man. At the start, it's a bit of a struggle to get used to, seeing as Lawrence's spelling and punctuation errors are included. Dialogue isn't separated out into the lines but included in the larger paragraphs along with many of Lawrence's thoughts which are marked as quotes. Then, however, something happens and you might well find you've been swept away by this short novel.

Lawrence's quirks and idiosyncrasies with spelling breathe as much life into this novel as does the story itself. His narration is full of the petty concerns of a nine-year-old such as his irritation with his little sister, his obsessive desire to acquire an army of Roman soldiers despite the fact that his mother apparently has no money, and his conviction that the young son of one of his mother's friends is going to steal his hamster in throw him in the trash. More significant, however, is that the narration is also fraught with the keen perception that children have of even those things that should be beyond their understanding. Lawrence knows when his mother is getting a bit too close to one of her old friends, he picks up on the subtle change between his mother and her best friend when the friend starts to doubt the truth of Hannah's stories, and he even knows, though he hesitates to admit it, that there is something a bit askew about this whole trip to Rome.

So the Romens never did say that it was strange to do a trial for a dead body, in fact they didn't say anything at all. But after, when they all went home to their houses, when they sat down and ate their dinner and it was really quiet, so they could hear their knives go "clink clink" and the clock go "tick tock" then I think they all knew.

As with other well-liked books such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the unique narrator of When We Were Romans allows Kneale to add many layers to the story that couldn't exist if we were given a "typical" narrator. The story as filtered though Lawrence's eyes is one of excitement, mystery, and horror which leaves it to us to uncover just what lurks beneath the surface of seemingly ordinary events. Additionally, Kneale cleverly intersperses the real-time happenings with Lawrence's recounting of the things he's been reading, alternately tidbits about space for his school report and his reading from his Hideous History books about Popes and Caesars. These reveal yet more about Lawrence's personality and his uncannily perceptive way of thinking while at the same time proving all too relevant to the things that are happening to Lawrence and his family. (If can't guess, both of the quotes I've chosen are from these instances.)

There is lots of dust by the event horizon, its like a big disk, it goes round faster and faster until it falls in, so it is like water going down the plug hole. And d'you know just because its about to fall down the dust does a funny thing, it spits out lots of rays, they are X rays and radio waves, scientists can see them through their teliscopes, and they are awful actually. It is like the poor dust is screeming, its saying "oh no I'm getting sucked into this black hole, I will never come back, nobody will ever see me again, I will get squoshed flat, this is terrible" its like it is saying "help me."

Honestly, this is a great book that can't be captured by any review. It's short and it's sweet and even a bit sad, and it's also very smart and totally believable. Another of my favorite reads of the year.

Read other reviews at:

A Striped Armchair


  1. I've heard good things about When we were Romans, but was a bit put off by its child narrator when I read a few pages at the bookshop. I will have to give it a try now.

  2. I'm letting you know that you have won a copy of The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery in my books giveaway. E-mail me your mailing address and I'll send the book out to you. Congratulations, and thank you for participating.

    mattviews at yahoo dot com

  3. Wow do you know you write awesome fiction reviews? That was an amazing review, one I never in a million years could have written. That was wonderful!

  4. Sarah - glad you'll be giving it a try. It does take a little while, but the story does really take you in once you get used to it. Hope you enjoy it if you get to try it! =)

    Callista - Wow, thanks! You're making me blush!

  5. Loved this one too! :) But it took me a few pages to get into it, just like you.