Friday, February 27, 2009

When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale

One of the greatest things a novel can do is present a perfect voice, to show the world precisely as one character -- and only that one character -- perceives it. I won't say that When We Were Romans is perfect -- what novel is? -- but it does capture that one voice with a focus and a power that's rare.

The voice belongs to Lawrence, a nine-year-old British boy. He's the man in the house since his mother, Hannah, divorced his unnamed father and took herself, Lawrence, and little sister Jemima away from Glasgow to live somewhere dreary in England. When We Were Romans opens with a lightning trip to Tesco's, quick and quiet because that estranged, unnamed father may be lurking. And the tone is set then: it's Hannah and her kids against the world, no matter what happens. Though the world seems to be getting in more than its share of hits these days.

Impetuously -- it's obvious almost immediately that word describes Hannah most of the time -- the mother decides to take the kids and run off to Rome, where she met their father, the last place she remembers being happy. It'll be an adventure, she says. And so they pack up as many of their things as they can cram into their little car and drive, almost as soon as she thinks of it.

The trip is an adventure, and so is Rome at first, full of Hannah's old friends, who are all happy to see her again. Lawrence thinks of them all as different animals in his head -- rabbits and bears and giraffes, some good and some not. The family stays with one friend, then another and another, as Hannah begins to complain to Lawrence about the ones they've just left. Everyone seems helpful and open-hearted when they meet Lawrence and his family, but things just don't quite go right. And has Lawrence's father followed them?

Lawrence is, by necessity, an unreliable narrator: he doesn't understand the adult world yet, and he's still at the age when he believes what he's told. But he describes events even when he doesn't understand them, and the reader begins to doubt some parts of his story.

I've seen reviews that complain that the ending of When We Were Romans descends into melodrama, but -- coming from the fields of genre fiction as I do -- I found it utterly believable and even a bit understated. It is a novel that depends on the voice of the narrator -- and I admit that I am often a sucker for first-person narrators, particularly unreliable ones -- but I found When We Were Romans utterly compelling, and nearly heartbreaking at the end.

1 comment:

Bluejo said...

I just read this because of your review, and I absolutely loved it. Terrific voice, and not afraid of the consequences of what it's doing.


Thank you. I'd never have come across this without you.

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