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.)
"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.
Reading Group Guide
1. How does Lawrence see the difference between mens roles and womens roles? How does he cope with feeling like the man of the family (with tremendous responsibility) as well as his mothers very young son (with little control over his circumstances)?
2. How did your perception of Hannah change throughout the novel? Did you trust her husband?
3. Is the relationship between Lawrence and Jemima typical? Did it remind you of the way you and your siblings dealt with each other?
4. What do Cloudio, Beppo, the Vanhootens, and others in Italy seem to think of Hannah? What was Lawrence able to see that the adults could not?
5. What was the effect of Lawrences reports on astronomy? How does he feel about the pending cataclysms of the universe?
6. What did Lawrence teach you about the Roman Empire? In what ways is his recounting of history refreshing? Were you as knowledgeable about science and history when you were his age?
7. How does Lawrence understand the lunacy of Nero, Caligula, and others? Does he recognize their narcissism and their sadism?
8. Do Jemima and Lawrence think of their trip as dangerous or amusing? Do they accept their mothers depiction of the trip as a grand adventure?
9. What does Hermann mean to Lawrence? Did you have a similar attachment to a pet when you were young? What do Lawrences depictions of the other characters as animals indicate about his imaginative powers?
10. Compare Lawrences voice to that of another child-narrated novel you admire. What makes his voice unique? What powerful qualities does a childs voice possess?
11. Discuss the scene of Hannahs return to Scotland. What do Lawrences actions indicate about how loyal and impressionable children can be?
12. What did Rome represent to Hannah? How did the novels varying settings create meaningful backdrops for the episodes in Lawrences life?
13. What hallmarks of Matthew Kneales storytelling style appear in When We Were Romans? In what ways does this novel expand on themes in his previous works?
Unfolding through the eyes of a perceptive little boy, When We Were Romans
showcases the captivating storytelling power of award-winning novelist Matthew Kneale. Narrating a trip you will not soon forget, nine-year-old Lawrence describes the day his mother whisked him from their home in Britain. Along with his sister, Jemima, and his beloved pet, Hermann, Lawrence is soon in Rome, where his mother had lived happily as a young woman. She tells her children that their father is a dangerous stalker, and the only way to protect themselves is to embark on a life in hiding. Fascinated by the ancient lore of his new city, Lawrence weaves the history of emperors and popes with scenes of his slowly unraveling family. Soon, this boys adventure becomes a poignant path of discovery about his parents, and a quest to understand his place in their hearts.
The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Matthew Kneales When We Were Romans. We hope they will enrich your experience of this deeply moving novel.