When We Were Romans, by Matthew Kneale. New York. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2008, 240 pp.
For me, this was a pleasant introduction to the writing of prize-winning bestselling author Matthew Kneale (English Passengers). Now the hardest part is to convey my enthusiasm without giving away the storyline.
The vastness, power and mystery of outer space, as explained through a nine year-old’s appreciative awe, open this adventure, invoking a feeling of slight dizziness and of not being able to know all the answers. “The Great Attractor is pulling us... probably a black hole...we will be stuck there forever. We are all being pulled towards [it] but hardly anybody knows.” This innocent reference to a child’s fascination with outer space foreshadows the persistent force of his mother’s increasingly bizarre behavior and the dark spiral of the story.
From start to finish, the voice of young Lawrence carries us through events which abruptly propel him, his mother, his pet hamster, and his little sister away from their London home to a vagabond existence in the homes of generous friends in Rome, finally finding a comfortable temporary space of their own. This brief tranquility is not to last, however, as old feelings of insecurity begin to grow again, stronger than ever.
I was fascinated by the voice of Lawrence which is intentionally indicated by frequent phonetic attempts and misspellings not uncommon for his age and imagination. I remember when I was that age “living inside my head” a lot, and if written out, it would have looked a lot like Lawrence’s musings. Since Lawrence is often wise beyond his years and warily observant of everyone's behavior, the “misspelling voice” helped keep in mind that he is just a young child after all, and thus his character stays intact throughout the crescendo of paranoia and sheer mayhem created by his mother’s perception of reality.
Through Lawrence’s descriptions, his mother’s and sister’s characters develop. As he meets new people, he privately ascribes to them animal traits of his own peculiar choosing, which is his unique expression of endearment and a means of understanding their behavior. He has to care about someone before assigning them an animal personality. It seems to be a way for him to casually acknowledge psychological traits by couching them in “animal” terms.
When the family reaches Rome and Lawrence is given some humorous history books, his comical retelling of the lives of several famous Caesars makes a fitting background for the family’s haphazard adventures in Rome and the growing psychological confusion swirling around his mother’s behavior.
Uncertainty, fear, and panic build, and a child’s mind is pulled inexorably toward his mother’s delusions.
To say much more will ruin the plot. For all its underlying seriousness, When We Were Romans is a light and humorous story which builds from a flash of uncertainty to a keen panic and a very moving climax. It is an unexpectedly powerful human drama revealed through the mind of a curious, loving child.