Nine-year-old Lawrence, it must be said, is a bit of a mamaâs boy. But since his dad has been lurking around their London neighborhood and telling lies to the neighbors, Hannah needs somebody on which to lean.
So âI will help mumâ he vows. A trip, he thinks, is just the answer. Theyâll go away until his dad leaves town and itâs safe to go back to school.
After remembering how happy she was living in Rome right after college, Hannah decides that an Italian vacation is the solution to their familyâs woes. (And besides, Italians understand about mamas and their boys.)
And so, Matthew Knealeâs When We Were Romans begins as Lawrence, his mom, 3-year-old Jemima, and Hermann the hamster pack up the Renault (or renno, as Lawrence spells it) and are off to live the â âdolchay veeterâ which mum said means having a lovely time.â
Once in Rome, Lawrence enlightens readers with excerpts from his Horrible Histories (oh please, tell me that these marvelous books really exist) as the family crashes with Hannahâs old friends and she tries to find a job before their money runs out. (âA Room With a View,â this isnât.)
Lawrence also picks up a bit of the language. âOn the bus going back mum started teaching us italian, she pointed at things out of the window and I learned âkeyazerâ which means âchurchâ and âmakinerâ which means âcarâ and âpizzaâ which means âpizzaâ so I thought âthis is quite easy, actually, perhaps I can learn italian after all.â
Lawrenceâs skewed recitals of history alone would be worth the price of a plane ticket to Rome.
âEmperor Nero was quite fat, he had a beard and a really thick neck, so it was like his head was just stuck into his body like a tube,â Lawrence explains. âWhen he became emperor he decided âI know what I want to do now, this is what I always really wanted, I will become a famous singer.â â
(His take on Neroâs mother, Agrippina, is brilliant.)
While visiting the Pantheon, Lawrence decides the Emperor Caligula, who was a mite touchy about his receding hairline, would love the circular building, because nobody could climb high enough to see his bald head.
Sadly for historians everywhere, Lawrence never makes it inside the Coliseum â his mom was a little short of cash that day.
But just when it seems that theyâre settling reasonably well into their adopted country (barring an illegal sublet, a precarious job, nd a few ruffled feathers from Hannahâs friends), Hannah tells Lawrence that his dad has found them again and sheâs terrified to go outside.
The little family huddles inside the apartment, while Lawrence tries to think of a way to make everyone safe forever.
Judging by the copious amount of inventive misspellings, Whitbread Award-winner Kneale (âEnglish Passengersâ) must have had a wonderful time writing âWhen We Were Romansâ â and probably fried the spell-checker on at least two computers. (At times, you almost need a decoder to figure out exactly what Lawrence is talking about.)
Lawrence is a narrator extraordinaire. He reminded me of two other precarious, precocious heroes, Roddy Doyleâs âPaddy Clarke Ha Ha Haâ and Christopher from Mark Haddonâs âThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Timeâ â although âWhen We Were Romansâ ultimately doesnât quite deliver the same punch as those novels.
While Lawrenceâs voice is delivered with the literary equivalent of perfect pitch, the storyline is marred by two flaws.
One is that, unlike Lawrence, readers guess far too early on the real terror chasing the family. The other is that the ending feels unbelievable and over-the-top.
As a result, âWhen We Were Romansâ lacks the narrative strength of such child-narrated classics as âTo Kill a Mockingbird.â
But if I were planning a trip to Italy, Iâd take Lawrence as a tour guide any time.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.