Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Book Review: When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale

ISBN: 978-0385526258
Publisher: Nan A. Talese
Hardcover: 240 pages
Genre: Fiction
First Line: "One day scientists found something strange out in space." (fyi, this is seemingly incongruous with the story, but it does actually come to make more sense)
One Word Review: Authentic

Young Lawrence is in a difficult situation. He and his sister, Jemima, live in London with their rather unstable mother, Hannah. When Hannah begins to suspect that their estranged father is stalking them, they pack up the family car and head to Rome, where they will stay with some of Hannah's old friends. But, just as Lawrence starts to feel secure in his new home, things begin to unravel, and Hannah decides to make a last desperate attempt to keep her family safe.

Since I finished reading When We Were Romans, I've been running over and over in my mind just how I felt about it as a whole. It's been a couple of days, and I'm still a little unsure. There were good and bad things (more good than bad, certainly), but still it left me feeling...uneasy. I think that's probably the result of the empathy I felt towards Lawrence. The story is told through his voice, misspellings, improper grammar, and all, and I found myself imagining my own young son in the same situations. How would he react? Why is life so often cruelest to children? Actually, as sad as it made me feel, I think it's sort of a testament to the author for creating a character that would evoke such emotions. So, I'll mark that down as a good thing. Another thing that I thought brought authenticity to the novel (which I've noticed others had problems with) was Lawrence-speak. Perhaps it is the very fact that I have a 10 year old son, that I found the misspelled words and run-on, stream of consciousness like sentences to be not only appropriate but also necessary if you're going to have a 9 year old narrator. Some reviewers have mentioned that the same words were spelled differently (sometimes correctly, other times not) throughout the book, and they find this inconsistent and perhaps sloppy. For me, it's what made Lawrence real.

As to the story, I had a feeling from chapter one that I knew where it was headed. There's no huge shocker of an ending, but it's not the sort of book that really needs that. You know what's going on. It's part of what makes it so heartbreaking. You can see what's coming, and yet, young Lawrence is seemingly oblivious. On the other hand, there were moments where I felt that Lawrence was acting out of character. Towards the end of the book, I found some of his actions to be too divergent from his personality to be believable, and it left me a little disappointed in the handling of that particular point in the book, but not so much so that it detracted from the rest of the novel.

When We Were Romans is a powerful look at of the loss of innocence, and it's well worth the read.

If you're interested, you can buy When We Were Romans here.


Meghan said...

This is a great review. I agree with you totally that Lawrence's voice is perfect - I think many of the people who have complaints either can't stand that writing style or have been too long away from people/children who cannot spell or use grammar properly.

I viewed Lawrence's actions at the end as an extreme reaction. He's not really thinking about what he's doing, he's just trying to gain his mother's approval against someone who has been repeatedly categorized as the enemy.

I'm glad you liked it, though! I seem to be finding very few people who do.

Traci said...

Yeah, I understood the acting out. It just seemed like it was either too severe or it was too brief. I'd have preferred if Kneale would have explored that just a bit more, but I think he was ready to tie things up by that point.

I still thought it was really good.

Ali said...

My take on the end was that he'd gotten so caught up in everything, it twisted him up inside and made him not-himself, if that makes sense. To me it was a testament to the power of a parent over his or her child. Not sure how realistic it was, necessarily, but I thought it made a good point. But I do agree that certain actions felt rather sudden.

Anonymous said...

I don't know that I had it all figured out in chapter one. I had a few ideas of where and how it would end, though most of mine were much darker than how Kneale did it... I figured she'd pull a Susan Smith to protect them from him, so the ending was more positive for me.

I'm glad to see someone else saw this the way I did. And doubley glad someone else agrees the spelling is normal for the age. Actually, if it wasn't for spell-check you'd think Lawrence wrote my blogs, too. The thing's always dinging me for the word "definately." Apparently that's not the correct spelling, and I can't ever remember the correct way.

Traci said...

I totally thought your spelling of 'definately' looked right. I had to spell check it myself to see what was wrong with that.

I think for me, it was so familiar, and that's why it didn't bother me. I'm always grading my son's papers, and he is a terrible speller (he'll spell the same word two different ways in the same paragraph - usually both wrong). He gets it from his father who once, when asked, told Brandon that Wednesday was spelled Wensday. Oh, yeah, that's my man. The kids learned quickly not to run to Dad with their spelling inquiries. Or math, or science, or...well, if they have a video game question, he's totally the guy to see.