Thursday, August 21, 2008

a review of "When We Were Romans"

When We Were Romans: A Novel by Matthew Kneale

Nine year old Lawrence, his younger sister Jemima and his mother Hannah are about to go on a trip. They are going to leave their cottage in England, drive through the Channel tunnel, across France and the Alps to their destination of Rome. Hannah once lived in Rome as a young woman, before she was a mother, before she even married their father, her now ex-husband. But she still has many friends there, who have offered her and the children a place to stay and help finding a flat and a job. The children will learn Italian and see the sites of Rome.
Yes, it sounds like an exciting adventure.

But there is more going on here than just a get away, a change of scene. Because Hannah believes that her ex-husband is stalking her and the children, poisoning the minds of their neighbors and about to do them harm. So they must flee, Hannah tells young Laurence, where his father will not find them.

However, there are more problems, even before they reach Rome. It seems that young Lawrence is aware that he must be careful around his mother, watching her moods, trying to keep her from getting 'sad'. Because at times, she becomes very, very sad, as in not get out of bed, or speaking or even being aware of what is going on around her for days at a time. Yes, his mom has serious issues that we begin to see through Laurence's eyes and things are getting worse and there is a distinct feeling of trepidation as the story progresses and the feeling that things are heading toward an even more terrible conclusion.

The author, Matthew Kneale, tells the story through Lawrence, using the speaking patterns and thoughts, grammar and spelling of a 9 year old. And to a large degree, he succeeds. Well, except with the spelling perhaps. I understand what he is trying to do, and when it comes to Lawrence dealing with the unfamiliar Italian places and such, his attempts to spell them as they sound to him make sense but the rest of the misspellings are inconsistent and often become just annoying. An interesting idea just taken too far.

And then there is a problem, I think, with the character of Lawrence himself. He is described on the dust jacket as “endearingly innocent and preternaturally wise” but I would suggest he is neither. A child that grows up in a household where the parent is dealing with alcoholism, or drug use or mental illness learns at a very early age techniques to 'deal' with it. How to cover for the parent, what to say to outsiders, how to behave so as to not 'provoke' a reaction. And at times, Lawrence is aware of that and acts accordingly. Like when, on the trip to Rome, their mother becomes very 'sad' and does not get up from bed at the hotel they are staying at for a couple of days. He takes care of his sister, dressing her and getting her breakfast and keeping her amused while also trying to get his mother to focus on the idea that they must move on. His reaction seems real, “ was funny, I was sad like I wanted to cry and I was really cross, it was like I didn't know which to be”. He loves his mom, but he also realized something is wrong and something 'bad' is always possible, if he is not alert and ready to say or do something.
But then, at times, he acts so contrary. He knows there are money issues but he demands expensive presents from his mother as 'rewards' for acting good and seems to delight in causing the younger sister to misbehave even more than usual.
True, he is only a child, but I see little preternaturally wisdom in his behavior.

So, a bit of a mixed opinion. An interesting book that is worth reading, but not totally successful in it's execution

As an aside, I totally loved the cover of my edition, the one pictured above. Like many people, I remove the dust jacket when I read a book. With this one, I did so to find not just a plain cloth cover, but a lovely, delicate illustration of Rome....very nice.


  1. Great review! I thought your take on Lawrence's inconsistency was interesting, and I see your point. "Preternaturally wise" was probably not the best term to describe him.

    On the other hand, I liked the way Kneale portrayed him as being both a care-taker--so typical, as you mentioned, of kids in dysfunctional families--and a child who sometimes doesn't see the connection between his own behavior (be it "I want a treat," or be it "I want to hit Jemima with a pillow") and the big picture. Kids are frustratingly inconsistent. So, I guess it worked for me, despite the misleading terms in the back cover blurb. (My review is here, if you'd like to see the rest of my thoughts on the book)

  2. I was just not convinced that his 'bad' behavior felt right. Nine is not that young, that he could not understand what he was doing. can make the argument that he was aware of it, that he was also acting out of anger at his mother's behavior and his need to be more adult in many situations than a nine year old should have to.

    But I don't honestly Kneale made that clear if that was his intention.

    You know, the more I think about the book, the more I like

  3. I don't know how I missed out on this book, but really want to read it.

  4. 뱃할맛이 나는곳 먹튀검증 안전한메이져


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