Review: When We Were Romans, by Matthew Kneale

There is something inescapably charming about galley proofs. I love seeing pages that say nothing but “Blank page viii” or “A Note About the Type — TK”. I like the little spot on the front cover that tells you that the book is a bound galley and not for sale. I like the tentative sale dates and tentative prices on the back. I like knowing that I’m reading something that still largely unavailable to everyone else. The whole package enchants me.

Of course, although I’m pretty keen on what I call the “Whole Book Experience” (that is, the physicality of the book being almost as important as the actual text) I know that an adorable galley does not a novel make. Fortunately for Matthew Kneale, I could have read a blinking-text version of While We Were Romans while hanging by my knees over a swamp and still enjoyed it. Because, you see, the text, also, is utterly charming.

Here’s the blurb:

A young boy tries to hold his fragile world together in this funny and deeply moving novel from the prizewinning author of English Passengers.

Nine-year-old Lawrence is the man in his family. He carefully watches over his willful little sister, Jemima, and his mother, Hannah. When Hannah becomes convinced that their estranged father is stalking them, the family flees London and heads for Rome, where Hannah had lived happily as a young woman. For Lawrence, fascinated by the stories of popes and emperors, Rome is an adventure. Though they are short of money, and move from home to home, staying with his mother’s old friends, little by little their new life seems to be taking shape. But the trouble that brought them to Italy will not quite leave them in peace.

Narrated in Lawrence’s perfectly rendered voice, When We Were Romans powerfully evokes the emotions and confusions of childhood — the triumphs, the jealousies, the fears, and the love. Even as everything he understands is turned upside down, Lawrence remains determined to keep his family together as he views the world from a perspective that is at once endearingly innocent and preternaturally wise.

When We Were Romans is beautifully constructed. It’s narrated entirely in Lawrence’s voice — spelling errors included — and although that’s the sort of thing that could easily get tiresome, I found that the narrative maintained its freshness and believability to the end. I believed that Lawrence was a nine-year-old: a precocious, slightly gullible nine-year-old with poor but phonetic spelling, to be exact.

Lawrence is also an astronomy and history buff, and his explanations of astronomical concepts and historical events are interspersed throughout the text, often poignantly highlighting aspects of Lawrence’s own journey. Here’s a short astronomy passage, spelling (un)intact:

The black hole in the middle of the Milky way is quite small but its still terrible, its greedy like a big mouth and once anything goes in it never comes back out again, it is gone forever. There is a secrit line all round it, nobody can see it but it is there, its called the Event Horizon, and you must be really careful, you mustn’t ever go across it by accident or you will get sucked into the black hole right away, nothing can stop you and you will never come out again.

There is lots of dust by the event horizon, its like a big disk, it goes round faster and faster until it falls in, so it is like water going down the plug hole. And d’you know just because its about to fall down the dust does a funny thing, it spits out lots of rays, they are X rays and radio waves, scientists can see them through their teliscopes, and they are awful actually. It is like the poor dust is screeming, its saying “oh no I’m getting sucked into this black hole, I will never come back, nobody will ever see me again, I will get squoshed flat, this is terrible” its like it is saying “help me.” (p.192)

When We Were Romans is beautiful and sad, two of my favourite things for books to be. I’ll definitely be re-reading it as time goes by.

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One thought on “Review: When We Were Romans, by Matthew Kneale

  1. The new blog looks great! I'm glad you liked When We Were Romans as much as I did (my review is here). And, I agree with you about the experience of reading the ARCs–everything from finding that little box or book bag on the porch, to the evidence that it's not yet a “real” book, just makes it that much more fun to read.


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