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When We Were Romans

by Matthew Kneale

Nine-year-old Lawrence is the narrator of Matthew Kneale’s latest novel. The family; Mum (Hannah), Lawrence and little sister Jemima, is on the run from Dad - for reasons that Lawrence can only guess at, filling in the blanks between what he’s told and what he overhears, “Mikie’s been spying on us, he got into the house, he’s turning our neighbour against us.”

Convinced that they aren’t safe Hannah tells the children to get a few things and bundles the lot, hamster included, into the car and heads for Rome where she thinks they’ll be safe with old friends from her former, pre-family life. Fascinated by Roman history of popes and emperors Lawrence is excited. They can be Romans! Once in Rome they sofa-surf between apartments and then settle down for a while – until Hannah is convinced that Mikie is watching them from the building opposite.

Clearly this isn’t an ideal situation for two young children and Lawrence watches his mother, trying to calculate her every move and mood with heartbreaking devotion. Lawrence is old beyond his years and in a position that no child should find himself. He is the one in control and when things reach breaking-point, he says tragically, “I cant get upset too actually or there will be nobody left.” This brought to mind the awful image of another child carrying too big a burden - Hardy’s young Jude - but, thank goodness, Lawrence doesn’t take Jude’s drastic action to alleviate the family’s suffering.

The child narrator is not new but seems to have made a comeback in recent years. Lawrence is a powerful protagonist shifting between playing with his Lego and keeping the family together. Matthew Kneale uses his voice to great effect to highlight the trauma of mental collapse in a haunting and heartbreaking story.

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