12 June 2007

Matthew Kneale - When we were Romans

There's a vogue at the moment for memoirs of childhood - Andrew Collins, for example - and also of stories written with child narrators. Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime was a spectacular success in this genre; David Mitchell's Black Swan Green was also popular, although I felt much less convincing and entertaining.

Matthew Kneale, who wrote the well received and best-selling English Passengers, has now tried something more similar to Haddon's book than Mitchell's. The narrator is a young boy, Lawrence, (I didn't get the age, but maybe 8 or 9) who is taken with his younger sister by his mother to Rome in order to escape from her lurking ex-husband. The narrative is written with an approximation to the writing style of a young boy, with an accuracy and consistency I felt Black Swan Green lacked.

The book's strength, as with Haddon's, lies in the imagining of a young boy's thoughts as he describes his circumstances and feelings, and observations of his mother as she breaks down with paranoia. He captures a 9 year old's capriciousness, how he will go from hating to liking an adult on a whim, and how he defines the world by what material gifts he can receive from it - mostly toys. Lawrence's undeveloped emotional life is the most moving aspect of the book, as he struggles to understand his mother and the situation, while asserting his own needs.

I've felt a connection to all 3 books mentioned above - Curious Incident is about a mathematically precocious 15 year old, which I was once; Black Swan Green concerns a boy who is 13 in 1982 (I was 12) and is full of period detail that I recognised. When we were Romans is relevant to me for much deeper reasons, and because of that I read it with an emotional intensity rather than a critical distance. I found the set-up, the sense of threat and paranoia, the fear and rootlessness very believable, and it awoke unwelcome memories of refuges and temporary homes. The mixture of excitement and disorientation, missing your home, and having your affections desperately bought off with presents (in one case a kitten); all were painfully recalled. I can speak strongly for the veracity of the scenario Kneale writes, and for the Lawrence's imagined experience.

I don't normally buy books new in hardback, and if I do I rarely read them before they come out in paperback anyway. In this case I found a proof copy large format pback in Notting Hill Book Exchange for £6 (as opposed to £17 new), and am very glad I did.

Guardian review


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