I always remove a hardcover’s dust jacket while reading, as I find it just slides around and gets in the way, and I don’t like subjecting it to the dangers of my purse. So one of the first things I noticed about When We Were Romans was the lovely illustration of Rome in place of a traditional cloth binding. It seemed to signal a playfulness I expected to find between the covers as well—where I also expected a written depiction of the look and feel of Rome, albeit through a child’s eyes.
After reading the novel, though, I would be more inclined to say the cover reflects a care for packaging above content. The salient feature of the novel is that it is told in the first-person voice of a nine-year-old boy, Lawrence, complete with grammatical and spelling errors. As I noted on Sunday, the gimmick was more annoying than anything else. I have no problem with telling the story through the filter of childhood, and using a stream-of-consciousness type voice along with the misunderstandings and mistakes common to children, but Lawrence’s spelling seemed to contribute little to that filter and was, instead, highly distracting. Within a single paragraph a woman’s name was spelled “Hilary,” “Hillary,” and “Hilery”—even a nine-year-old shouldn’t be that indecisive, and it almost makes it seem as though Kneale can’t remember exactly which misspelt variants Lawrence was supposed to be using (I doubt this was actually the case, but the conceit failed for this reader). (Sidebar: helpful hint to American readers—Kneale, and thus Lawrence, are non-rhotic speakers of English. This means whenever Lawrence spells something with “er” at the end, it means an “uh” sound, e.g., “Persher” is “Persia.”)
To make matters worse, Lawrence is not a charming, fun, or particularly bright child. His
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