When We Were Romans
Lawrence is a good big brother. He is compassionate toward his baby sister (except for those times when he couldn’t be expected to, like when she is throwing a really silly tantrum), and also protective of his delicate mother. For example, when Mummy decides that they must flee England for Italy in order to keep Dad from breaking into the cottage and trying to take them away, Lawrence invents a less-frightening explanation for his sister and helps Mummy pack the car. At first, the trip is an adventure. When Mummy is feeling well, she is creative and playful, and Lawrence gets to indulge in his passions for astronomy and Roman popes and emperors. But when her headaches and confusions become more frequent in Italy, Lawrence begins spending less time building forts for his Roman soldiers and more time helping Mum keep Dad from poisoning their food and water. Desperate for freedom, Mummy and Lawrence hatch a plan to stop Dad, but when they finally arrive at Dad’s house in Scotland, Lawrence discovers that things are not what they seem.
When We Were Romans is authentically narrated by Lawrence, down to his nine-year-old spelling and sentence structure, a decision by author Matthew Kneale that infuses what could have been a dark book with a great deal of charm and humor. In Lawrence’s telling, bits of history and Italian travelogue abound, and that combination with the overall mystery keeps the plot a little lighter and in motion. The child’s point of view also renders what would be obvious and “factual” to an adult into a version that is alternately more straightforward and more fanciful, and thus interesting of its own accord.
Though the plot ultimately deals with sad issues, the ending is hopeful. And Lawrence is a delightful boy the reader will be pleased to know.
I have had Kneale’s Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance on my TBR list for well over a year; now that I have been introduced to his work, I’ll be turning to it sooner rather than later.