When We Were Romans
Matthew Kneale Picador, 297pp, £16.99
Child narrators, with their breathless delivery and idiosyncratic idiom, can be grating companions. Matthew Kneale, however, is a master of ventriloquism, and nine year-old Laurence, the sturdy lynchpin of When We Were Romans, is a mixture of reason, intuition and childish rage: “It was funny, I was sad like I wanted to cry and I was really cross, it was like I didn’t know which to be.”
He and his little sister have been whisked by their mother, Hannah, to Rome, where they are bandied from apartment to apartment
and treated with solicitous bemusement by an assortment of bohemian friends. They are fleeing from their dangerous (so Hannah insists) father, and it is up to Laurence to assume a naively paternal role. Before long, Hannah is barricading them into their flat, convinced that her husband has poisoned the water and hidden knives in their beds. Laurence blithely believes her, and it is the gap between our understanding and his that drives this startling examination of parental paranoia.
Laurence’s skilful manoeuvring in a tricksy adult world is artfully depicted. His guileless voice only exacerbates the sense of dread, while its deceptive simplicity hides a chilling exploration of mental illness and maternal neglect.