cover image When We Were Romans

When We Were Romans

Matthew Kneale, . . Doubleday/Talese, $23.95 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-385-52625-8

Kneale, who won the Whitbread for English Passengers (2000), returns with a tale narrated by fiery, precocious, pitch-perfect Lawrence, who at nine years old struggles with being at once a normal kid and, with his parents' estrangement, the man of the house. Living with his baby sister Jemima, and his mother, Hannah, in a cottage by a wood, Lawrence and Co. are menaced by their father, “Mikie,” who seems to come down from Scotland at will to stalk them. At her wits end, Hannah packs the family into the car and heads (through the Channel Tunnel) for Rome, where she had lived in early adulthood and where, it soon becomes clear, she still has a lot of friends. Bewildered but brave Lawrence wonderfully describes the people they encounter: as he attempts to figure out who is an “enimy” and who a friend, he muses on deep space and gladiatorial Roman history (“Nero was so pleased, he thought 'hurrah, I really am a good singer' ”). As small incongruities pile up between what Lawrence sees and how he interprets what happens to him, the family's hurtlings across Europe and the city take on a shattered poignancy. (July)