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When We Were Romansby Matthew Kneale
Synopses & Reviews
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.
Narrated in Lawrence's perfectly rendered voice, When We Were Romans powerfully evokes the emotions and confusions of childhood — the triumphs, the jealousies, the fears, and the love. Even as everything he understands is turned upside down, Lawrence remains determined to keep his family together. Like the young narrators of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and To Kill a Mockingbird, Lawrence views the world from a perspective that is at once endearingly innocent and preternaturally wise.
"Kneale, who won the Whitbread for English Passengers (2000), returns with a tale narrated by fiery, precocious, pitch-perfect Lawrence, who at nine years old struggles with being at once a normal kid and, with his parents' estrangement, the man of the house. Living with his baby sister Jemima, and his mother, Hannah, in a cottage by a wood, Lawrence and Co. are menaced by their father, 'Mikie,' who seems to come down from Scotland at will to stalk them. At her wits end, Hannah packs the family into the car and heads (through the Channel Tunnel) for Rome, where she had lived in early adulthood and where, it soon becomes clear, she still has a lot of friends. Bewildered but brave Lawrence wonderfully describes the people they encounter: as he attempts to figure out who is an 'enimy' and who a friend, he muses on deep space and gladiatorial Roman history ('Nero was so pleased, he thought 'hurrah, I really am a good singer' '). As small incongruities pile up between what Lawrence sees and how he interprets what happens to him, the family's hurtlings across Europe and the city take on a shattered poignancy. (July)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Matthew Kneale is an extraordinary British writer whose new novel is easy to admire because of its artistry, but difficult to read because of its painful subject. If "extraordinary" sounds too much like hyperbolic reviewer-speak, I would direct skeptics to Kneale's "English Passengers" (2000), his award-winning novel about the mid-19th-century colonizing of Tasmania that's part rollicking high-seas... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) adventure, part "Heart of Darkness," and that can only be described, without the faintest whiff of exaggeration, as extraordinary. The quality that sets Kneale apart is his talent for impersonation. He told the story of "English Passengers" using no fewer than 20 idiosyncratic voices, including those of a rum smuggler, a delusional missionary, a racist doctor, a penal colony inmate and several of Tasmania's last remaining aborigines. The narrative seemed not so much written as clamorously populated. His latest novel features only a single voice yet is an equally impressive act of ventriloquism. The voice belongs to Lawrence, a 9-year-old British schoolboy on whom the reader is entirely dependent. That dependence requires us to hack through a narrative environment thick with run-on sentences, erratic spelling and a child's-eye view of turbulent and sometimes disturbing circumstances with his loving but chaotic protector, his "mum," Hannah. "Mum is really clever," Lawrence confides, so when she suggests rather suddenly that they pick up and drive from their English country cottage to Rome, where she lived before her marriage, Lawrence unquestioningly complies. He packs up as many precious items as he can fit in Mum's "renno," wedging in his hamster, his Tintin and Asterix books, his Lego and Hot Wheels and his 3-year-old sister, Jemima. The journey, while exhilarating, is far from a lark. As Lawrence describes it, their "adventure" is an attempt to flee the vaguely articulated menace posed by Lawrence's estranged father, who, according to Mum, has been spying on them, breaking into their cottage and turning their neighbors against them. "I will help mum," determines Lawrence, who assumes the role of the little husband and allows himself to feel angry or scared only during the brief lulls in Hannah's periods of manic desperation. "I cant get upset too actually or there will be nobody left," he says plainly, wringing our hearts. Many things go wrong once they reach Italy: Their car breaks down; Mum periodically breaks down ("One moment she was all fine and then it was like a big ray just shon on her and made her go wrong"); she loses her passport and runs out of money; they wear out their welcome at the homes of Mum's old friends. Yet while these setbacks and the accompanying hum of anxiety are unnerving, the trip is not entirely a calamity. For every mishap, there is a taste of elation: the "lovely fountains" at the "Piazzer navoner," a surrey ride at the "viller borgasey," the scrumptiousness of chocolate "crussons" and "spaggetties," the purchase of toy Roman soldiers, with which Lawrence makes plans to build a fort. These highlights shine with relief and even grandeur: "I thought 'hurrah hurrah, now we are real Romans' I thought 'now we will really be safe.'" If only that were true; if only the threat of his dad's encroachment did not devolve into a nightmare of his mother's paranoia. During one of her manic episodes, Mum and Lawrence build a cardboard Roman fort together, an activity that lives in his memory as a magical event. "It was like we were solders in a battile," he says. Their enemies might be real or they might be imagined, but what's absolutely true for Lawrence is his unshakable belief in the conspiracy of his and his mother's love. "Conspire" means "to breathe together," and so he does with Mum, and so we do with him. Donna Rifkind reviews frequently for The Washington Post Book World. Reviewed by Donna Rifkind, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"One of the best explorations of a child's mind and heart in recent fiction, and its talented author's best book yet." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"[A] haunting story of a family in disintegration....Kneale has created a marvelously engaging and believable voice for Lawrence, whose account is at once heartbreaking and humorous....Idiosyncratic, original, and altogether memorable." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird...young Lawrence, nine years old and the 'man' of the family, brings readers into his world, powerfully connecting us to the drama of his childhood." Pat Conroy, author of The Prince of Tides
"As Lawrence immerses himself in Roman history from a series of 'Horrible Histories,' he renders the story of his mother's breakdown with touching sensitivity and vulnerability. Very highly recommended." Library Journal
"This narrative is heartbreakingly moving....Full of restraint and artistic integrity, this is a poignant, haunting and lovely novel." The Guardian (U.K.)
"How much Lawrence understands of his family's tribulations is the book's central, poignant mystery; the consummate artistry with which Kneale captures this child's voice, its chief pleasure." Entertainment Weekly
About the Author
Matthew Kneale was born in London in 1960, the son of two writers. He is author of numerous prizewinning novels, including the bestselling English Passengers, which won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award and was short-listed for the Booker Prize. He lives with his wife and two children in Rome.
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