Early this morning – about eight – I finished reading Matthew Kneale’s When We Were Romans. I adored his previous novel, English Passengers, and would rate it up there with David Copperfield and Nineteen Eighty-Four, it’s that good. He’s the son of science fiction horror genius Nigel Kneale, and the writer of the Mog books, Judith Kerr. So he has literature in his DNA.
I enjoyed the novel greatly, with reservations. It’s beautifully written, narrated from the point of view of Lawrence, a boy of nine – which immediately would provoke a lazy reviewer to mention The Curious Incident, as I have just done. But the similarity is superficial. Kneale perfectly captures not just the voice and erratic punctuation and spelling of a young boy, but also his mental processes as he struggles to make sense of the world. The novel’s other great strength is the characterisation, of Lawrence, obsessed with space, his Hideous Histories books, and Tintin; his sister Jemima and his mother Hannah. The story begins with Hannah concerned that her ex-husband is stalking them, leading her to decide, on the spur of the moment, that they should move to Rome (where she lived during her student days, and where she has friends).
The novel then concerns the family’s haphazard attempts to find somewhere to live, shifting from flat to flat on a daily basis, with Hannah rapidly running out of money and goodwill; but what it really chronicles, through Lawrence’s point of view, is his mother’s mental illness. She’s suffering from depression and paranoid schizophrenia.
Which is my reservation with the novel. Humorous, engaging, brilliantly written and well-observed as it is, it’s so relentlessly heartbreaking that it’s quite tough to read; it reminded me of The Old Curiosity Shop, with Little Nell breaking down in tears every three pages.