When We Were Romans

I can be a bit weird about my reading. Sometimes I don't want to know anything at all about a book I'm going to read. You could tell me it has a man and a woman in it and I'll think you've just spoiled it for me. So the other day when I picked up a book because it had a cute little picture of a car driving around a big circle (possibly a hamster wheel?) I had no idea what an anxiety provoking story lay within.

Told from the perspective of a young boy (nine according the book cover but I don't remember ever reading his age in the book), When We Were Romans, by Matthew Kneale, is essentially about a family trying to stay safe. The author chooses to tell Lawrence's story complete with horrendous misspellings and the kind of errors children might make when hearing a word they've never seen spelled. This style is somewhat distracting at first, especially if you've ever worked as a proofreader and are used to stopping and reaching for a pen when you see a mistake, but eventually stops grating and becomes part of the music of the prose.

As the story begins Lawrence's mother is panicking because Lawrence's father has secretly come down from Scotland and is endangering the entire family; mother, Lawrence and three year old sister Jemima. Lawrence's mum panics, packs the family up in the car (leaving Lawrence's computer console and other favorite toys behind) and drives them to Rome. Along the way they have some problems as Mom worries about Dad following them, worries about not having a pet passport for Hermann, Lawrence's hamster, and worries when the car breaks down some distance from Rome. Once they get to Rome they have nowhere to live, no car and very little money.

Lawrence intersperses his story with his thoughts on astronomy, talking about things like the Great Attractor and black holes. He also likes to talk about the history of Rome, particularly bloodthirsty popes and rotten emperors. There's a theme of fear that runs through all of these asides. The people he talks about were all murderers, often slaughtering people wholesale, and the bits of astronomy tend to be the destructive bits like solar flares that can wipe out all satellites, disrupting life on earth for billions. The author is able to brilliantly illustrate Lawrence's constant anxiety by showing us how he focuses on death and mayhem even when he's not fretting about his family's situation.

The most disturbing element of this story is the unreliable narrator, who is even more unreliable that your typical unreliable narrator, because not only is he telling the story from his perspective, but he's also a child and translates adult situations through the lens of childhood. He's also filtering his experiences through data that his mother is giving him, and I found it impossible to be sure if the family really was in danger or if the mother is suffering from a mental illness.

The cover of my edition of the book has a quote from someone who says they fell in love with Lawrence. I'm sorry to say I did not. I thought he was kind of horrible. He blackmails, he whines, he steals from his sister and his idea of "fair" is radically different from mine. He does however take excellent care of his hamster and he keeps his mother moving when she gets overwhelmed, which are both strong pluses in the character arena. And of course a boy who has a mentally ill mother or a stalking/dangerous father or possibly both is going to act out and behave quite poorly. If he weren't the narrator and I wasn't stuck so solidly in his thought processes he may not have grated on me so much.

It's no surprise to me that Matthew Kneale has won loads of prestigious prizes for his books. I can't say that I enjoyed When We Were Romans, I can't say I liked the characters, I can't say I liked the plot and yet the thing as a whole was compelling enough that I read it straight through, not stopping for anything else.

You can read an excerpt here.

One-Paragraph Review
This week's one-paragraph review is from Van Helsing who comments on Fearnet's original series The Dark Path Chronicles, saying, "Episodes are four minutes long, including a commercial and a preview, which leaves about two minutes for the episode. That’s not enough time for anything to happen. You probably shouldn't bother watching. Unless you love Goth metal music and want to rock out to cliché vampire images. Then you'll be in seventh heaven." Do you have a one-paragraph (or smaller) review you'd like to share? Send it in to me for consideration. You can reach me at feedback@qualitytimeweekly.com.