When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale

June 10, 2012
We are all falling. We are being pulled nearer and nearer to the “Great Attractor,” a black hole that “eats everything,” according to nine year old Lawrence, the narrator of When We Were Romans, a novel by Matthew Kneale. Through the telling of adventures and a series of temper tantrums, Kneale has woven together the story of a young boy’s journey through a web of lies and out the other side.
It is easy to imagine a family happily taking a road trip filled with wonder and excitement. However, this is not the case for the family in Kneale’s novel. Lawrence, a child of only nine, struggles to keep his family together when his mother whisks them away on an adventure spurred by her extreme paranoia.
Perhaps Lawrence is too trusting He believes his mother that his father is stalking them; he trusts her judgment that they must escape to Rome. He believes in all of this, but mostly he believes in her. Lawrence is only partly aware of his mother’s increasing mental illness. “Sometimes its like she just gets stuck,” Lawrence explains about his mother. Along with his sidekick Hermann the hamster, he attempts to scrape together what is left of his family and keep it intact.
Written from a child’s point of view, the novel is genius. Every word is written so genuinely; the reader gets a sense of real childhood naivety from the narrator’s voice. References to Lawrence’s favorite topics, Roman history and outer space, give character and appear to be related to every part of his adventure. His lack of grammar is obvious; the entire novel is written without regard to rules about punctuation or capitalization. Each misspelled word and run-on sentence gives a clue into the mind of a boy whose life is being pulled toward his own Great Attractor: his breaking point.
The tale itself is absolutely heartbreaking. As Lawrence draws nearer to an inevitable fate, the excitement he finds everyday is normal in his mind, but seems out of place to the rest of the world. It all almost seems too normal. To Lawrence, knowing where he’ll stay for the night and whether or not he’ll get a toy he wants both carry the same importance. It is impossible not to feel sorry for this little boy whose life is falling apart.
Matthew Kneale has accomplished the seemingly impossible; he has constructed an intricate, complicated story told in a very simple manner. Through the eyes of a child, he has created a world in which readers can escape.
This book is both heartbreaking and uplifting; it will enthrall readers and cause a little self discovery along the way. With its smile-evoking main character and flawless delivery, When We Were Romans is sure to delight all audiences.

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