*REVIEW WRITTEN BY GUEST REVIEWER BONNIE F.*
When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale
*I am very honored to have my very first Guest Reviewer here today. Please welcome my friend Bonnie F. who graciously agreed to read and review the ARC copy I received from the publisher. Here is her wonderful review:
Synopsis from The Barnes & Noble Review: When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale is narrated by a precocious nine-year-old boy, Lawrence, and is reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, another adventure story in which adult situations are filtered through the eyes of a child. Unlike the autistic Christopher in Mark Haddon's 2003 novel, Lawrence is not disabled; rather, he's preternaturally mature. When his erratic mother, Hannah, takes him and his three-year-old sister, Jemima, on an adventure from London to Rome, where they hope to escape the murky menace of the children's father, Lawrence is the steadying hand. "Mum is really clever, she can always help me with my home work, she makes funny jokes, she knows just what everybodies thinking, even strangers shes never met before, but sometimes its like she just gets stuck and doesn't know what to do next, so I have to help her and give her a little push." The story is replete with Lawrence's spelling and grammatical mistakes, but that's part of its charm. The boy reads history books about popes and emperors (he especially enjoys the stories of Nero and Caligula), and it's soon apparent that Lawrence is drawing parallels between these mentally unhinged leaders and some of the people in his own life. In Rome, his mother relies on old friends for places to stay and possible work. But these friends, whom she met as a student, were friends with her ex-husband as well, so she's not sure whom to trust -- and neither is Lawrence.
I had mixed feelings about this book. The author chose to write from a nine year old's point of view and included misspellings and grammatical errors a young child might make. At first, this was very distracting to me. Sometimes I felt like I was reading a Junie B. Jones book! As I read on, however, I got more used to Lawrence's voice and more caught up in the story. I felt it was very sad that Lawrence felt so responsible for his mother's see-sawing moods and emotional well being. Hannah seemed to accept this and actually seemed to depend on Lawrence to make some of the decisions for her! Too much for a young boy. He also had to help take care of and handle a spoiled little three year old sister. Sometimes his normal nine year old emotions would show through and he'd get angry, other times he felt like he needed to take care of and protect Jemima. It also touched me the way children will always love their parents, even if the parents are acting strange or are mentally unstable...kids don't care, they just want thier parent's approval and love and Lawrence was always striving for this, trying making his mother happy, until even he started to think like her. Near the ending of the book, it was very difficult for him to come to terms with his mother's mental illness and to trust other people again, as his mother had convinced him no one could be trusted. After he realized his mother might be wrong about certain things and people, he was very angry and felt he hated her, but deep down still loved her. At the end of the book he is slowly healing and trying to have a normal nine year old life.
There were some lighter, more amusing moments in this book. Even though Jemima was a spoiled little girl, it was typical three year old behavior and was sometimes funny to read about, especially since Mum usually gave in to her. I also thought Lawrence giving people animal identities to match their personalities was amusing: Gus was "dog with a ropey tail", Franseen nice cat, Crissy chick, Janiss pretty pig, etc. I also liked reading Lawrence's versions of outer space and of famous Roman emporers and popes. Although told simply from a child's point of view, it made me curious to find out more about some of them. Some of the ideas Lawrence came up with to help his mother and deal with his sister were amazingly clever for a nine year old. He is a quick thinker-but I think he had to be to deal with his mother at times.
This book was an OK read but not one of my favorites. The child-parent relationships were poignant and bittersweet to read about, especially having a child of my own close to Lawrence's age.
**Thank you Bonnie F. !!!