When We Were Romans ~ Matthew Kneale

My second Kneale and very, very different from the first one (English Passengers). Usually when I say that, I have a strong preference for one book or the other, but both of these are just terrific. When We Were Romans, is the story told by nine-year old Lawrence about his sister Jemima, his pet hampster Hermann and their adventures (or, Uh-o, misadventures) traveling from England to live in Italy. Their mother Hannah wants to get away from their estranged  father, so abruptly takes them all on a road trip. Very slowly, we understand that Hannah is descending into madness. Though we (the reader) intuit this little by little by Lawrence’s telling, he himself doesn’t fully grasp it. Although both Lawrence (and to some extent the younger Jemima) sense something wrong, they are drawn into their mother’s way of seeing things.

Kneale gives us a very unique voice in Lawrence, a child being forced to grow up quicker than he might like,. He’s a very bright kid, intellectually curious. Interspersed throughout the book are Lawrence’s retelling of some of the tales he has read from children’s books on science and history. Lawrence tells us the story of Nero (from a book he’s been given called “Calamitous Caesars”) as only a child could. Exceedingly funny, and  in its way, incisive. Lawrence is also taken by the universe, the Milky Way, the planets, Black Holes and the like.  He has an innate understanding of their truths. I’d have to say that Lawrence has a grasp on some of these concepts (Black Holes, infinite space and time) that surpasses my own.With children, the possibilities are limitless, so that these concepts are easier to grasp. Children have few benchmarks to measure up against, so Black Holes make perfect sense. As we grow older, our experience becomes more and more channelled in certain socially accepted directions. Concepts like Black Holes are increasingly outside the breadth of our experience. These stories are also very delicately placed. They’re never out of place, but not so obvious as to present themselves as direct commentary on the on-going story. I’d prefer to understand that Lawrence doesn’t make these connections at all, though as the story reaches its conclusion, he’s getting closer and closer. He uses these areas of knowledge to escape and cope with his increasingly chaotic and confusing family life

The last such story comes after Lawrence’s world has completely fallen apart, and just before he comes to understand that things have irrevocably changed. It’s a new world and he’ll have to adapt

Scientists have known for ages that something terrible will happen to the sun. This is sad but there is nothing scientists can do, they can’t stop it with any invention, even something really clever from the future, because the sun is too big you see, it will just happen anyway.

But then scientists discovered a really good thing which is called gravitational lensing. Its when there is a galaxy quite far away in space, and it doesn’t seem special at all actually, when scientists look at it through their telescopes they just think “so what?” But then one day there is a big surprise…

Perhaps  the scientists will see another planet with their gravitational lensing, it will be lovely and green, it will be beautiful. Then everybody will be all right after all.

This is a tender and touching story that never descends to tragedy, though it’s made for it. Kneale has found just  the right balance between heartbreak, wonder, and indomitable spirit.

♦♦♦

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