When We Were Romans by Mattthew Kneale

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When We Were Romans by Mattthew Kneale

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Buy When We Were Romans by Mattthew Kneale at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: An excellent story of the effect of mental illness on a family which is marred by the fact that it is told by a child, complete with spelling mistakes and idiosyncratic grammar. You will either love or hate the way it's been done.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 296 Date: May 2008
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-0330435727

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Hannah has two children, Lawrence and Jemima. I'd guess that Lawrence is about nine and Jemima quite a bit younger, probably just out of the toddling stage. Scared that their father, from whom she's divorced, is stalking them, Hannah takes the children plus a car full of toys and Hermann the hamster and drives to Rome. Hannah met the children's father when she was living in the city and she still has friends there. It's obvious to the reader very early on that Hannah has a mental problem, but Lawrence, who narrates the story, is oblivious of this. He just wants his mother to be happy and to keep their lives on an even keel. Of the three he's the only one who might be able to do this.

I had mixed feeling about this book. The first point is a rather back-handed tribute. The book left me feeling unsettled and brought back some memories that I would far rather had stayed away. I had to deal with a parent with a mental problem. Even dealing with it at an older age than Lawrence was traumatic - the complete unpredictability of life left me with a longing for stability and a hatred of surprises. Matthew Kneale reproduced that perfectly - the never knowing quite what the trigger would be, the desperate striving to avoid another episode at all costs and the submerging of your own personality in the service of someone else. He captured perfectly Lawrence's innocence of the problem. After all, if madness is normal and everyday, what is abnormal? Chillingly, he also catches the fact that whilst madness might not be infectious it does spread.

A stroke of genius is the way in which Lawrence's twin obsessions - space and Roman history - are blended into the story, with vignettes which illuminate what is happening to the family. And what a story it is too, with a madcap dash across Europe and the dragging of their possessions around various friends in Rome in search of accommodation. They're all gradually alienated as the stories Hannah tells about the reasons for their being there begin to sound increasingly implausible. Lawrence is completely taken in by his mother but in the end it's Jemima who sees through her. There's a cold logic in that.

My real problem with the book is with the manner of its telling. Lawrence tells the story in his own words, complete with spelling mistakes and idiosyncratic grammar. For the first page, even two, it was amusing, even endearing. By page three it was beginning to pall a little. By the end of the book I wanted to ram it down Lawrence's throat, along with the crussons he ate, bought with the yuros his mother spent. I know - it's completely irrational, but the manner of telling the story made me take against a sympathetic character. It was rather like doing a simple crossword whilst reading a book - annoying, but without any satisfaction.

Such a pity.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.

If you'd like an example of a book narrated by a child in his own words then you can't do better than Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time although it has to be said that Haddon's task was simplified by the narrator being a child with Asperger's Syndrome rather than a child with a sick parent. You might also enjoy Shanta Everington's Marilyn and Me where the heroine and narrator is a young woman with learning disability.

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Buy When We Were Romans by Mattthew Kneale at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy When We Were Romans by Mattthew Kneale at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy When We Were Romans by Mattthew Kneale at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy When We Were Romans by Mattthew Kneale at Amazon.com.

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