Honestly, you wait years for another book in the When We Were… series to follow on from Milne’s Very Young and Ishiguro’s Orphans, and then two come along at once. Charlotte Mendelson’s When We Were Bad was a family comedy which I enjoyed very much, and while Matthew Kneale’s When We Were Romans is also about family, there any similarities end. (It also shares something vaguely in common with the Ishiguro, but as with so much of this book, to say more would spoil it.) I owe my discovery of it to dovegreyreader, who recently persuasively praised it while giving no spoilers whatsoever; an effect which I shall now attempt to recreate.
We are in the hands of Lawrence, a nine-year-old boy who at the beginning of the novel is living with his mother Hannah and younger sister Jemima. Father is in the background, muttered about darkly, feared and avoided and – so far as we can tell – the perpetrator of some unspeakable outrage. So much are the family in terror of him that they leave Britain and decamp for a time to Rome, where Hannah lived for a time in happier days. When not recounting their adventures in Rome with old friends, Lawrence occupies himself with stories about Roman emperors from his Horrible Histories book, or imparting information about every boy’s favourite topic (after dinosaurs): outer space.
Lawrence’s story is told with childlike energy and simplicity, not to mention an authentically lax grammar and spelling (“I had seen mum when she got worreid but I never saw her like this, this was worse. She just lay in bed looking up at the cieling with her eyes”). The book is even set in a slightly blocky, crude typeface. These are tools to be used sparingly, and fortunately Kneale never lets his creative use of language get in the way of the story. Even so, at first I thought we had another identikit child narrator, an affectless voice like Christopher Boone from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke.
We were coming back from the supermarket, we went to a further away one where we never went before so it would be all right, and it was an adventure mum said, we must be really quick, we must be like birds diving down and getting some food and flying away with it in their mouths.
And then I began to find myself thinking about the characters when I wasn’t reading the book, and I realised that in its candid way, Lawrence’s narrative had wormed its way rather deeper than I thought. And as I read on, and began to work out the truth of the story, his asides began to take on a deeper resonance. The Roman emperors, like the celestial bodies in the Milky Way and beyond, depicted how so much of our lives – and children’s lives in particular – are dictated by forces outside our control.
Sientists 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. … 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. They will build a huge space craft and escape there before the sun goes out.
The story also reminds us that there was one thing even the richest and most powerful Roman emperor could not protect himself against. And the central revelation, while not entirely surprising, is plausible and gives the book a greater richness and depth. It makes you root for Lawrence and his family in a quite emotional way, and want everything to be OK for them, which is a simple achievement that many longer and denser books would struggle to manage.