When We Were Romans

By MATTHEW KNEALE

When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale is narrated by a precocious nine-year-old boy, Lawrence, and is reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, another adventure story in which adult situations are filtered through the eyes of a child. Unlike the autistic Christopher in Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel, Lawrence is not disabled; rather, he’s preternaturally mature. When his erratic mother, Hannah, takes him and his three-year-old sister, Jemima, on an adventure from London to Rome, where they hope to escape the murky menace of the children’s father, Lawrence is the steadying hand. “Mum is really clever, she can always help me with my home work, she makes funny jokes, she knows just what everybodies thinking, even strangers shes never met before, but sometimes its like she just gets stuck and doesn’t know what to do next, so I have to help her and give her a little push.” The story is replete with Lawrence’s spelling and grammatical mistakes, but that’s part of its charm. The boy reads history books about popes and emperors (he especially enjoys the stories of Nero and Caligula), and it’s soon apparent that Lawrence is drawing parallels between these mentally unhinged leaders and some of the people in his own life. In Rome, his mother relies on old friends for places to stay and possible work. But these friends, whom she met as a student, were friends with her ex-husband as well, so she’s not sure whom to trust — and neither is Lawrence.