When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale

26/05/07, The Times

Intrepid is the author who jumps headlong into the treacherous waters of fiction narrated by a child: on one side is the Scylla of giving the child adult thoughts and language, on the other, the Charybdis of authentic child-speak, with all the deliberate errors of syntax, spelling, punctuation and construction that that entails. In his new novel, When We Were Romans, an altogether more substantial and engaging work than his previous Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance, Matthew Kneale has opted for the latter. The results are not without their problems.
     The story: Lawrence and his little sister, Jemima, are whisked off to Rome by their mother, Hannah, to get themselves far away from her ex-husband (and father of the children) who she suspects of stalking them. The novel is narrated entirely by Lawrence who is, I’m guessing, nine or ten years old; he doesn’t like his mother getting sad or anxious or disturbed, he wants to see her happy and smiling all the time so he has developed this protective, helpful and amiable personality, always on the lookout for her, always willing to make things easier. Rome is where Hannah met her future husband and she still has friends in that city. They drive there, across England and France, with Hermann, Lawrence’s hamster, in the back seat and Jemima’s doll’s house in the boot.
     In Rome, Hannah’s old friends seem eager to help Hannah out by offering the family their spare rooms, floors, even a job. But when the reason for their sudden appearance in Rome is inadvertently revealed to this group of friends, not everyone seems to be convinced. Meanwhile, Hannah tells Lawrence that his father has followed them to Rome and is not only watching them from the opposite building but also putting knives in his bed, poisoning the water supply and the cake that Hannah has made for a dinner party, turning everyone they know against them. She barricades them in and Lawrence comes up with an idea, only as a joke, to confront their father and is taken aback when Hannah takes him seriously and acts accordingly. It has been obvious from around page 10 or so that Hannah’s mental illness is the moot issue here, although innocent Lawrence is in the dark about it, until the final rushed yet undeniably moving pages of the novel.
     Authenticity is the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, so trying to achieve the authentic child’s voice with words randomly misspelled, punctuation thrown to the winds and with orthographical tricks is not only lazy but also foredoomed because the dread hand of cutesiness descends before long, marring everything. It is difficult to think of any author who has pulled off a child’s voice successfully except Mark Haddon in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time but he was helped immeasurably by the particular condition of his narrator. Ben Faccini succeeds in The Water Breather because he does not aim for verisimilitude, instead choosing to give his child-narrator, Jean-Pio, adult modes for expressing his point of view; it is easier to suspend that disbelief than have the mirage of one-to-one correspondence dangled in front of the reader’s nose. Besides, Lawrence is so ingratiatingly conciliatory, such an obsessive goody-two-shoes, that instead of feeling any sympathy for him, you want to slap him very, very hard. Where the book really comes alive is the way Kneale, with consummate subtlety and sympathy, finds metaphorical hinges between the family’s unfolding story and the two intellectual interests of Lawrence: Roman emperors and astronomy.