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.
The Washington Post
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)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Something's not quite right with nine-year-old Lawrence's Mum, and he'll do anything within his power to keep her functioning and shield her from perceived dangers. Written by Kneale (English Passengers) with charm and outrageously bad spelling, the novel begins as Lawrence, his three-year-old sister, and their pet hamster are taken by Mum from their London cottage to Rome to escape her stalker ex-husband and return to the place where she had once worked and still has an extensive network of friends. Misfortune follows them as their car breaks down, bank cards don't work, and their kind friends struggle to find room for them and their many belongings. Warmly welcomed back to Rome at first, they begin to lose support owing to Mum's increasingly erratic behavior and her conviction that her ex-husband has followed them to Rome and turned her friends against them. 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.
School Library Journal
For teens with a taste for sad, morose stories in which adults abandon their responsibilities and a child takes them on, Romans will be a welcome addition to the canon. Lawrence is a nine-year-old whose mother, Hanna, has convinced him and his younger sister, Jemima, that their estranged father is poisoning their food, turning the neighbors against them, and stalking them. To escape his alleged behavior, she takes them from London to Rome, a city she knew as a young single woman. Hanna often experiences "blackouts"-she sits and stares, refusing to move or participate in daily activities. Life in Rome is initially better: Hanna's friends from the past come to her aid in finding housing and a job. But things soon deteriorate and Hanna once again relies on Lawrence to act as the adult. Lawrence's feelings are symbolized through the scientific and historic facts he reveals throughout his narrative. Things are never happy for him, and the family is never able to achieve contentment or find peace. Some teens will find this state of explained sadness cathartic.-Joanne Ligamari, Twin Rivers United School District, Sacramento, CA
The technique of portraying adult experience through a child's eyes and words-accomplished in classic works as otherwise dissimilar as What Maisie Knew and The Catcher in the Rye-is knowingly adopted by the Whitbread Award-winning British author (Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance, 2005, etc.). His family's adventure abroad is recounted by nine-year-old Lawrence, a precociously ruminative charmer who intuits connections between historical and astronomical information and the emotional unraveling of his "mum" Hannah, who has spirited Lawrence and his bratty younger sister Jemima away from home in Scotland to Rome (where Hannah had formerly lived, happily), far from the ex-husband who, Hannah insists, is stalking them. As the itinerant trio ricochet among stays with various old friends of Hannah's, Lawrence hesitantly adapts to new surroundings while finding refuge in caring for his beloved hamster Hermann and summarizing for us what he has learned from potted histories of the misdeeds of notorious men. His kid's-eye views of favorite atrocities orchestrated by Caligula and Nero, for example, are cockeyed delights that feature hilariously inconsistent misspellings. The reader wonders from the beginning whether Hannah's shrill denunciations of the children's father are to be trusted. When they return to Scotland to confront the evil their dad supposedly embodies (comparable, in Lawrence's imagination, to a galaxy-swallowing Black Hole), things take a violent, poignant turn for the worse. The bleak concluding pages hold two contrasting possibilities in a heart-rending balance: Will Lawrence inherit Hannah's self-destructive instability, or will his innate intelligence and goodness rescue himfrom her influence? This is the novel that Patrick McCabe's over-praised The Butcher Boy ought to have been, redeemed by Kneale's sure-handed restraint. One of the best explorations of a child's mind and heart in recent fiction, and its talented author's best book yet.
From the Publisher
“Extraordinary.... 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.” —The Washington Post Book World“If you enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, definitely pick up When We Were Romans.” —The St. Petersburg Times“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“Full of restraint and artistic integrity, this is a poignant, haunting and lovely novel.” —The Guardian“[Lawrence] is the literary first cousin of Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke . . . The heartbreak and triumph of When We Were Romans is that little Lawrence is the real thing.” —Literary Review“Matthew Kneale's lovely novel . . . is narrated by Lawrence with insight, humor and sweetly erratic spelling: it halts and splutters in rhythm with the children's whims and tantrums . . . the author has got inside a young, overburdened mind with convincing accuracy.” —Financial Times“The strength of Kneale's novel is not suspense but Lawrence's delicate sensibility . . . Lawrence's touchingly ingenuous language, his tetchy irritation with his baby sister, and his beleaguered optimism make him a genuinely affecting protagonist.” —Independent“Substantial and engaging . . .With consummate subtlety and sympathy, Kneale finds metaphorical hinges between the family's unfolding story and Lawrence's two intellectual interests-Roman emperors and astronomy.” —The Times“Lawrence's skillful maneuvering in a tricksy adult world is artfully depicted. His guileless voice only exacerbates the sense of dread, while its deceptive simplicity hides a chilling exploration of mental illness and maternal neglect.” —New Statesman
Read an Excerpt
One day scientists found something strange out in space. This thing was pulling millions of galaxies towards it, one of them is the Milky Way which is ours, but the scientists couldn’t see the thing because it was hidden behind lots of dust. They thought “this thing must be huge to pull all these galaxies towards it, and we are getting pulled towards it really fast, it is at millions of miles per hour, but it could be anything, nobody knows, it is a mystery.” They thought “this is strange, this is scary” and then they said “I know, let’s call the thing the Great Attractor.”
The great Attractor is pulling us right now. I think it is probably a huge black hole, because black holes eat everything, they even eat light so you can’t ever see them, they look just like a piece of really dark night. One day I bet there will be a big disaster, we will go nearer and nearer and then suddenly we will get pulled right in. It will be like a big hand gets us so we will vanish, because nothing can get out of a black hole you see, we will be stuck there for ever. It is strange to think that every day, every minute we are all being pulled towards the Great Attractor but hardly anybody knows. People go about their ordinary every day lives, they have toast for breakfast and go to school, they watch their favorite programs on the telly and they never even guess.
We were coming back from the supermarket, we went to a further away one where we never went before so it would be all right, and it was an adventure mum said, we must be really quick, we must be like birds diving down and getting some food and flying away with it in their mouths. It was fun, actually, we got our cart and we almost ran, we just grabbed all the tins and packets and milk and tinfoil etc etc. Then Jemima saw some sweets in a little purple tin and she said “oh I want them, I need them, please mum.” Mum said “don’t be silly now, Lamikin” which is what she calls Jemima sometimes “anyway those aren’t real sweets their cough sweets, their bad for you.” But Jemima didn’t listen, she never does, and she started crying like a big crybaby, she said “but I need them, I need that purple tin.”
She was still saying it when we were coming back in the car and suddenly we were almost home. We went past Mrs Potters house and the droopy trees which look funny like hair and I thought “uhoh” I thought “now there will be trouble” but I didn’t say anything of course, because we couldn’t ever say anything in front of Jemima, because she was too young to understand. But then there was a surprise, because it was fine after all. Jemima was terrible just like I expected, when mum stopped the car she said “I’m staying here, I want to go back to the supermarket” but mum was ready, she said “if you come with me then I’ll give you a nice treat” and it worked. Jemima went quiet and said “all right.”
Then we were so fast. Mum got Jemima out of her car seat and we all got all the plastic bags out of the trunk, I carried lots, even though they were really heavy, we went to the door, we were almost running, and Mum had her key all ready. That was when I looked round, I didn’t really want to but I couldn’t help it, I just had to. I looked at the fence and the bushes. But it was all all right, there wasn’t anybody at all. Then we were inside, mum shut the door, she locked it, and I thought “hurrah hurrah” I thought “look at all this food, this will last ages.” We put it away in the fridge and the cupboards, and after that I went up to see Hermann. I cleaned his bowls and gave him some new nuts and water.
Jemima followed like always so I let her watch, I said “no you can’t hold him.” Then it was time for robot wars, which is one of my favorite programs, there was a robot called the obliterator and another called the stamper which had a big sort of foot. So we sat on the sofa and I thought “I bet everything will be all right now” I thought “I bet dad will go away back to Scotland and then I can go back to school again, because I’m all better from my flu now” I thought “I wonder if Tania Hodgsons cat had its kittens yet, I wonder if they were all tabbies like their mum?” Jemima was being annoying like usual. She said “I don’t want to watch robot wars, I want to watch the other side.” I said “there isn’t anything on the other side Jemima you big silly, its just the news” but it didn’t work, she said “I want the clicker, I never get the clicker, its my turn.” Jemima is terrible with the clicker, she just does it again and again really fast so you can’t watch anything, so I said “you can’t Jemima, you’ll break it like you broke your new pink sunglasses.”
That was when mum came in. She said “here’s your treat lesonfon” which is what she calls us sometimes, it is “children” in French, she told us once. It was our supper, usually we can’t eat it when we watch telly but she said “just this once” and it was hot dogs and oven chips which was a treat too, because mum says we can’t have oven chips because their too expensive, their a real waste of money. Usually I would just be pleased by those treats, I would think “oh yes, how delicious” but this time I wasn’t actually, which was because I noticed mums face. You see, all that smiling she got from getting the food from the supermarket was just gone away again, it was like it all went down the plug hole, she tried to smile when she said “heres your treat, lesonfon” but it didn’t work, I saw it, she just looked all worried and desperate.
I looked at Jemima but she hadn’t noticed, she was too busy watching robot wars and trying to eat her chips too quickly, she said “ow too hot” she is such a greedy guts. I thought “what will I do, I must help mum” I thought “but I really want these chips, if I don’t stay and eat them then Jemima will steal them secritly, perhaps I should just stay and eat them really fast” but then I thought “no no, I must help mum now.” Suddenly I had an idea. I said “Jemima I am going to the loo, you can have the clicker just until I get back” and she was really pleased of course, she said “oh yes” and grabed it right out of my hand. I said “I’ve counted all my chips really carefully, Jemima, if you eat even just one tiny one then I’ll notice and I’ll put all your favorite dolls on a high shelf so you’ll never get them again.”
Mum was sitting in the kitchen. She jumped up a bit when she saw me, she said “Lawrence.” I said “whats wrong mum?” and she went really quiet, she said “what dyou mean?” so I said “somethings gone wrong, I can see it in your face.” She closed her eyes a bit, she said “oh Lawrence, I don’t want to upsit you with all of this” and she sort of squinted her eyes. I thought “she will tell me now” so I said “all of what mum?” and she did a little moan, she said “I don’t know what to do, its so awful, we just can’t go on like this.”
I really hated it when poor mum went sad like that. I thought “what can I do to help her?” but I couldn’t think of anything, I tried and tried, I thought “this is bad” until suddenly I had an idea. So I said “why don’t we go away for a bit, just until he’s gone away, we could go to Uncle Harry’s or somewhere.” Uncle Harry lives in London, he has a big house. We went there for Christmas but it was just for lunch, we didn’t stay because we are too noisy so aunt Clarissa gets a head ache, and mum gets worried Jemima will break Uncle Harries old plates which are stuck on the walls like pictures, they cost lots of money. But mum shook her head, she said “they’re away, they’ve gone skiying.” I thought “oh dam” I thought “there must be somewhere we can go” but it was hard actually, because mum doesn’t know many people, usually its just us in the cottage. I thought “I’m not going to give up now when everythings going so well, when we got all that food.” So I said “what about Grandma and Grandpa in Kew.”
Mum shook her head again, she was blinking, she said “he’d just follow us . . .” But then she stopped, she frowned like she was thinking really hard, and she said “unless . . .” This was good, at least she wasn’t just saying “no, nothing will work” so I said “unless what?” And then she said it, she said “unless we went somewhere really far away. Somewhere he’d never be able to find us. Somewhere like Rome.” Now she sort of squinted like this was better and better and she said “actually we could you know. I’ve got our passports from that time we almost went to France.”
This was different, this was a big surprise. Mum sometimes talked about Rome where she lived years ago before I was born, and how we must all go one day to see the fountains which were so beautifull and eat the food which was so delicious, but I never thought it would happen, especially suddenly like this. Another surprise was that mum didn’t look so worreid anymore, in fact she even did a little tiny smile, that was good. I didn’t want to stop mums new smile of course, I really wanted it to stay, but I just didn’t know, I couldn’t help it. So I said “but what about school?” because I had tests at the end of term, you see, and I had my science project too, I was doing SPACE for Mr Simmons, who was my favorite teacher. But Mum didn’t mind, that was good too, she didn’t go sad after all. She said “we could take all your books so I can teach you for your tests and help with your project. And anyway it wouldn’t be for very long, just till we are sure dads gone away. I could ring the school and say you’ve still got the flu.”
I thought “I suppose so, if its just for a short time. I can take my book on Space that I got for Christmas from Uncle Harry and Aunt Clarissa, that will be for my science project.” I thought “it’ll be a shame if I miss Tania Hodgsons kittens” but then I thought “it will be nice to see the lovely fountains.” But then before I could think anything else the door pushed open with a bang and Jemima came in and said “robot wars finished.” Probably she guessed we were talking about something without her, she had her spying look so I bet she was listening at the key hole but she couldn’t hear anything. You have to watch Jemima because she is everywhere. Mum pretended she wasn’t surprised, she pretended she was expecting her to come in suddenly like that, she clapped her hands in the air like she had a special treat and said “Jemima, we’ve got some big, big news. We’re thinking of going away.”
I thought “I will help mum” so I said “Yes, isn’t it exciting, we are going to Rome, won’t that be nice.” I don’t think Jemima knew anything about rome really, but she made her silly surprised face to pretend she did, then she clapped her hands and shouted “oh yes Rome Rome”.
So suddenly it was a real plan now, it was all finished. Mum was so pleased, she was smiling and smiling, that was good, that was wonderfull, because she hardly did that for weeks, not since I got the flu and dad came down from scotland secretly. It was like it was bubbeling out of her and making her eyes go blink blink. I thought “oh hurrah” I thought “this is good” I thought “I hope it doesn’t all just go away again.”
I went back and ate my hot dogs and Jemima didn’t eat lots of my chips after all, she might have got one or two, it was hard to tell. Then mum said there was no point in dillidallying, we must go to Rome right now, we must go tommorrow morning, which meant we had to start packing straight away. She said we had to be very careful, we mustn’t take too many things because they wouldn’t fit in the car, so she gave me and Jemima three boxes each. Jemima talked to all her dolls and her animals, she said “are you going to be good, no, then you can’t come” or “all right then, you can come to Rome” then she threw them into her boxes with some other things all in a rush, and she didn’t take any notise when I told her “Jemima you must chose carefully or you’ll leave your favorite things behind and then you’ll cry,” she just got angry and shouted “but I have been careful, I won’t cry.”
I thought “wow, we are going to Rome, that’s amazing.” It wasn’t easy packing. I wanted to take my computer consel, my football game, my drawing paper and pencils, and also all my Tintin and Asterix books, all my lego, my hot wheels cars and track, my school books and my book on space and of course there was Hermann and his cage, but that was much too much for my three boxes, so I thought “uhoh, this will be hard.” I could hear Mum in her bedroom packing, she wasn’t keeping watch at all, sometimes she just forgets, so I thought “that’s silly, mum” and I went into the sitting room so I could look.
It was a bit frightening actually, because when I started opening the curtain I thought “dads face might be right here on the other side of the window looking right at me.” But there was a strange thing too, because d’you know a bit of me sort of hoped he would be there, that was funny. That bit wanted him to look in with his silly smile and his hair that goes up like smoke, it wanted him to say “hey there Larry hower you doing?” But then I squashed that bit, I blew it up, I thought “oh no you don’t” and I thought “I don’t like you dad, just go away, don’t start pretending to be nice.” But of course he wasn’t there anyway, there wasn’t anybody, it was just the window pane, all tall and black. I put my hand on it, it felt cold, and then I went right up close to the glass to look out, but it was really dark, the light just went a little way, it did a bit of the grass, there was some of a bush, and I could hear the wind making the trees move, swish swish swish.
From the Trade Paperback edition.