When We Were Romans is a haunting psychological novel and another masterful work from the author of the prize–winning English Passengers.Nine-year-old Lawrence is the man of his family. He watches over his mother and his willful little sister Jemima. He is the one who keeps order, especially when his mother decides they must leave their life in England behind because of threats from Lawrence's father. But their new life in Rome does not go as planned. Short of money and living off of his mother's old friends—all who seem to doubt her story—Lawrence soon realizes that things are not what they seem.
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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 Hardcover edition.
Reading Group Guide
"Touching and delightful. . . . Unswervingly authentic."
—The Seattle Times
The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Matthew Kneale's When We Were Romans. We hope they will enrich your experience of this deeply moving novel.
1. How does Lawrence see the difference between men's roles and women's roles? How does he cope with feeling like the man of the family (with tremendous responsibility) as well as his mother's 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 Lawrence's 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 mother's 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 Lawrence's depictions of the other characters as animals indicate about his imaginative powers?
10. Compare Lawrence's voice to that of another child-narrated novel you admire. What makes his voice unique? What powerful qualities does a child's voice possess?
11. Discuss the scene of Hannah's return to Scotland. What do Lawrence's actions indicate about how loyal and impressionable children can be?
12. What did Rome represent to Hannah? How did the novel's varying settings create meaningful backdrops for the episodes in Lawrence's life?
13. What hallmarks of Matthew Kneale's storytelling style appear in When We Were Romans? In what ways does this novel expand on themes in his previous works?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale is really a long short story or perhaps, at most, a novella if you take out the quasi-scientific/historical digressions of the child narrator's mind. (Most of these extraneous musings I happily skipped over.) That said, the book is a poignant story of a young boy and his little sister dealing with parental disintegration and there is authenticity in the author's presentation of Lawrence's viewpoint and in the depictions of him and his sister (gotta love Jemima!) However, it is a bit ridiculous of Neale to randomly and arbitrarily misspell words and grammatically butcher the text; the child's viewpoint is realistically presented without attempting to create the (poorly executed) fiction that a child actually scribbled the prose. A proofread manuscript would enhance the reader's experience without detracting from the perception of seeing through Lawrence's eyes. By the way, contrary to Pat Conroy's assertion on this book's cover, this is nothing like Scout's viewpoint in To Kill a Mockingbird. Although Neale's story's narrator is telling of a past experience, it is barely in the past. Scout is narrating from the long vantage point of an adult - with all the reflection and understanding that implies - many years after the events depicted in the novel. There is a world of difference in those two approaches. Despite the flaws, I still enjoyed this quick read.
I enjoyed this, in the way that I would enjoy talking to a precocious child. You have to keep in mind that the narrator is a nine-year old boy and sees the world from that vantage point. The book is written in as stream of consciousness (there were times I found myself gasping for breath just trying to keep up) and a lot of the spelling is phonetic (a little disconcerting, but easy to figure out if you pronounce the words). But, it works. The author succeeds in making the reader really get into Lawrence's life and the adjustments he has to make when his mother moves his little family to Rome.
How I love Lawrence. He is a sweet soul whose devotion to his family is unwaivering. He faces so many obstacles yet manages to keep positive and only occasionally cross. An excellent discussion of how we raise our children could ensue. It is truly through the lens of devotion to his mother that Lawence sees the world. What do we tell our own children? Are we correct?
Narrated in the voice of nine-year-old Lawrence, the story begins when his mother, Hanna, becomes convinced that their estranged father is stalking them. Hanna packs up the car and the family sets off on a trip from their home in London to Rome. Once in Rome, the city where Hanna lived as a young woman, the family bounces from friend to friend quickly overstaying their welcome in each place. Then just when it seems that they¿ve found a place to call their own the unthinkable has happened and trouble begins again. Initially it was hard to get past the misspelled words and grammatical errors from the story being told by Lawrence but I kept reading and the storyline dragged along until midway through. Just at the point when I was about to throw in the towel and move on the book picked up the pace and the story came alive. Then it came to a screeching halt again with the ending. Saying anymore would be letting out a spoiler so I¿ll just say that the ending left me asking too many questions for this to be a satisfying read.
This book is an interesting read that delves into the topsy turvy world that young Lawrence, his sister Jemima and their mother live in. The story is told by Lawrence a nine year old boy who has been forced by circumstances to shoulder way too much responsibilities for such a young child. Shortly after meeting the family, they are on the run from a father who is portrayed as an ominous figure who means to do his family ill. The family ends up in Rome, living on the mercy of friends, charity of strangers and some good old fashion luck. Through it all Lawrence is our guide, fascinated by Roman leaders of days past, astronomy and trying to navigate the world around him. Very early on I realized that Lawrence is not as reliable a narrator as he would have us believe. His naivety clouds his ability to realize the true enormity of his situation. But this is not his fault as he is only a child and has a child's propensity to believe adults that he has come to love and trust. I believe that most people will realize certain facts very early on and know what is really going on. But I will not go into those details cause I hate when people spoil a book for those who have not read it. I thought it was an a good enough read. Some of the draw backs of this book is that it is told in a child's voice, complete with misspellings. For awhile that literary device worked but then it just got a tad annoying and overdone. The book also dragged in parts and as much as it was a short book at 224 pages, I think it should have been shorter as parts of it just felt unnecessary. One of the best things about this book was its ability to convey the powerlessness of childhood, the petty jealousies of youth, sibling rivalry and the many feelings and emotions that being a child evokes.