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When We Were Romans (thoughts)

August 7, 2008

(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”!)

When We Were RomansI 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.)

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. August 7, 2008 6:20 am

    I’m adding this one to my list. Thanks for the review.

  2. August 7, 2008 7:04 am

    First of all, that cover is cool! That alone might have got me. :-) But even if it hadn’t, your wonderful review sure has! I’m now quite anxious to get my hands on this previously unheard little book. Thanks yet again, Eva!

  3. August 7, 2008 7:07 am

    Hmmm…I just noticed your updated thoughts on Shadow Cities. When I saw that book in your sidebar yesterday, I was so intrigued that I immediately went and put a hold on it at the library. You’ll have to let me know if it’s worth my time to read it.

  4. August 7, 2008 8:50 am

    This one sounds fantastic, and I do love that cover. I’m a sucker for a great cover, in fact.

  5. August 7, 2008 10:19 am

    Any book that can be compared to To Kill a Mockingbird is a must-read for me. This sounds great. Thanks for the review!

  6. August 7, 2008 11:03 am

    Saw this book mentioned once or twice over the last few month or so and was intrigued by it. So I’m glad to see you think its as good as I thought it looked! :)

    However, I then discover it’s been out over here (UK) since last summer and I’m slapping my forehead and wondering how I’ve never noticed! LOL

    Definitely one for me to look out for then!

  7. August 7, 2008 1:27 pm

    Is this the same Matthew Kneale who wrote “The English Passengers?” If so, I’m going to have to read this one, because TEP was great!

    Glad to have you back!

  8. August 7, 2008 7:04 pm

    This sounds really really interesting! I like when the narration feels true to the character, where you forget that the book was actually written by someone completely different.

  9. August 8, 2008 6:18 am

    This sounds like a fun read. I have a 9-year-old boy, and I would love to get inside his head for a day!

  10. August 8, 2008 1:31 pm

    JenClair, I hope you enjoy it!

    Debi, isn’t it a cool cover?! lol I think you’d really like it-but it might make you cry. It made me cry. And I still haven’t made up my mind on Shadow Cities-the first part, the description of the slums, is *definitely* worth it though.

    Andi, me too!

    Lisa, the reviewer compared it to To Kill a Mockingbird-I’m not sure I would. Still a good book!

    Bart, lol-I hope you like it!

    Chartroose, yep-the same Kneale. I want to track down The English Passengers now. :D

    Kim, yep!

    Susan, hehe-it’s a pretty interesting place. :)

  11. August 10, 2008 7:22 am

    I read just enough to see that you enjoyed this…and then stopped because this is also in my TBR pile from the publisher. Isn’t the cover – underneath the dust jacket – wonderful? Love it.

  12. August 11, 2008 3:05 pm

    Tara, I have an ARC, so I can’t see the cover. :( Now I want to know what it looks like!

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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