Review: When We Were Romans, by Matthew Kneale

For anyone who grew up in a home broken by divorce, Matthew Kneale’s WHEN WE WERE ROMANS will strike a cord. Narrated by nine-year-old Lawrence, the book captures perfectly the confusion, mixed loyalties, and anxieties felt by children whose world has been upended by divorce. Kneale has constructed a powerful story here, one that not only reminds us what it was like to be young, but also how the actions of adults can have life-long consequences for our children.

After a difficult break-up, Lawrence’s mother decides to leave their home in England and move to Rome, where she lived happily as a young woman. Along with his little sister Jemima and his beloved hamster Hermann, Lawrence reshapes his life, keeping himself entertained with stories of famous Popes and Emperors while trying to cope with the reality of a new people, a new country, and an unfamiliar language, only to find in the end that, once again, nothing in his life was what it seemed.

Kneale does an astounding job of capturing not only the speech, but the logic and thought processes of a child. Throughout the book Lawrence applies his limited little-boy experiences and knowledge of the world to each changing circumstance, sometimes with funny results, sometimes with tragic. In each case, however, we see behind the curtain of his thoughts and how they affect and inform his actions.

Matthew Kneale has written a book that makes you laugh and cry in equal measure, taking you into a world where the adults around you hold all the keys and have all the power. That Lawrence nevertheless survives his experiences is a testament to the resilience of all children. It’s a lesson we all should learn.

18 August 2008


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