When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale

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 younger sister Jemima is a holy terror, and Lawrence alternates between despising her and wanting to protect her. But Lawrence himself is little better. He is selfish and rude, acts one minute like the man of the house and the next demands his mother buy him expensive toys. In some sense this is what children are really like, but the fact that Lawrence’s mother is unable to properly take care of him and Jemima makes it painful to watch—not because of some profound commentary on mental illness but because the kids come off as completely unlovable and I wanted to leave them to their fate rather than sympathize. I couldn’t understand at all why Hannah, their mother, would want to drag them around everywhere with her.

Hannah, though, decides to run away with her children to Rome, where she lived as a young woman and met their father, the man she is now trying to escape. The family moves from flat to flat as they wear out their welcome with Hannah’s old friends until finally they find a place of their own. Through Lawrence’s eyes we can see that things are not quite what they seem, though he is largely oblivious to the fact, and his mother is paranoid rather than pursued. For a time he begins to have doubts about his mother’s fears, but she manages to convince him once again that her ex-husband is trying to kill the three of them. Lawrence then suggests what could be a permanent solution to their problem.

Through the course of these events the family treks all over Rome and sees some quite famous sights, like the Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, and the neighborhood of Trastevere. A child narrator should be able to show some sense of wonder at places like these, but while Lawrence enjoys touring Rome he really doesn’t do much to give the reader the ambiance of the place. He never remarks, for example, on what the Romans look, sound, or act like, which should be worth commenting on for a boy who grew up in Scotland and England. On the other hand, Lawrence’s digressions about astronomy, popes, and ancient Roman emperors were among the most enjoyable parts of the book. This is where his enthusiasm shines through, but at the same time the connections between those vignettes and his current situation are left unexplored.

By the time the family makes the drive back from Rome to Edinburgh, Lawrence has been completely won over by his mother’s cause, which makes the family’s inevitable departure from fantasyland much more difficult. In fact, it is this ending to the story that caused the most problems for me. The entire novel is narrated by Lawrence in such a way that it must have been “written” by him after the events are over—there is no indication that it’s a diary or that he’s not looking back from after the fact. But nowhere does he show that he’s grown at all, or learned anything, or even reflected for more than thirty seconds on any of the events or anything he’s done. At the very end he undergoes a bit of a “transformation,” only not, because he’s pretty much unchanged.

I’m not sure if this is supposed to just be a reflection of the fact that he’s still a small boy and not ready for the emotional toll of everything that’s happened to him. But that makes him an unusually un-precocious child narrator. Maybe this is supposed to make the tale more poignant, but I just found myself wondering what the point of slogging through Lawrence’s annoying thoughts and orthography was if even he wasn’t going to learn from his own story.