When We Were Romans (thoughts)
(On an unrelated note, for me the best way to get back into reading appears to be YA urban fantasy-I raced through Ink Exchange and “The Dreaming Place”!)
I requested a review copy of When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale from the publishers, based mainly on the plot description (nine-year-old Lawrence moves with his mother and baby sister to Rome-where his mother lived years ago-in order to escape an abusive father) and a comparison between Lawrence and Scout (of To Kill a Mockingbird fame-one of my favourite books ever). Oh, and it had a cool cover. ;)
Fortunately for me, the book turned out to be absolutely wonderful. It’s narrated by Lawrence, and while I’ve never been a nine-year-old boy, I can imagine the thought process would be similar. Moreover, it’s not just narrated by him, but actually seems to be written by him-words are misspelled, and punctuation and capitalisation are erratic. For the first couple pages, I was annoyed that the author had used such a gimmicky device; however, I quickly realised that it wasn’t a gimmick. It’s the way Kneale draws the reader fully into Lawrence’s experience, and as soon as I had adjusted, it rang really true and helped give the narrative momentum. I’ll give you an example, so you’ll know what to expect, but please don’t be turned off by it’s unusual style:
The sun was almost gone down and everything was really orange, so I thought “I like this Rome actually.” We went over a bridge over a river which mum said is called the Riber, it is in a big trench in the ground, and then Mum had to hurry up and look up the numver of Franseens flat because Ugo said we were almost there. We stopped beneath a big building, mum went up and rang the bell and a moment later Franseen came out and she laughed when she saw we were in Ugo’s truck with pictures of cheese. Franseen was from France, she had frizzy gray hair like cotton candy and she was a cat I decided, a nice cat, her tail was long and thin and white.
Like any nine-year-old child, Lawrence has a very active inner life, and the last part of that passage shows one of its features: whenever he meets someone new, he imagines them with a tail. This helps him decide what kind of person they are. Once in Rome, Lawrence starts reading a couple of Horrible History books (if you haven’t heard of the series, its written for children and tells weird/disgusting stories from various eras)-one on Roman empires and one on popes. His favourite stories get interlaced with the narrative, and I quite enjoyed learning new things about those crazy emperors! :)
As the book progresses, Kneale ratchets up the tension…it becomes more and more obvious to the reader that Lawrence isn’t quite seeing the whole picture. He’s quite a skilled author, because by about halfway through I was racing through, desperate to find out what would happen to Lawrence. I don’t want to say any more than that, though, because it’d be easy to give too much away!
All in all, Lawrence is a very loveable narrator, and reading When We Were Romans felt like talking to some of my younger cousins. It was wonderful to escape into a little boy’s mind, with all its vivid imagination, but it was Kneale’s seemingly effortless ability to create more and more unease that kept me up past my bedtime. It’s a pretty short book at two hundred and forty pages, but the reading experience will stay with you long after. Reviews have compared it to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, probably because of the distinct narrative voice, but I found When We Were Romans to be a much, much better book (and I enjoyed The Curious Incident). Kudos to Matthew Kneale for delivering such a magical, heart-breaking, vibrantly alive story!
(For those wanting to read it, it was released in the UK last summer, and came out here in America in hardcover on July 22nd.)