WHEN WE WERE ROMANS

Matthew Kneale

 Nine-year-old Lawrence is the man in his family. He carefully watches over his willful little sister, Jemima, and his mother, Hannah. When Hannah becomes convinced that their estranged father is stalking them, the family flees London and heads for Rome, where Hannah lived happily as a young woman. For Lawrence, fascinated by stories of popes and emperors, Rome is an adventure. Though they are short of money, and move from home to home, staying with his mother’s old friends, little by little their new life seems to be taking shape. But the trouble that brought them to Italy will not quite leave them in peace.

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 Nine-year-old Lawrence is the man in his family. He carefully watches over his willful little sister, Jemima, and his mother, Hannah. When Hannah becomes convinced that their estranged father is stalking them, the family flees London and heads for Rome, where Hannah lived happily as a young woman. For Lawrence, fascinated by stories of popes and emperors, Rome is an adventure. Though they are short of money, and move from home to home, staying with his mother’s old friends, little by little their new life seems to be taking shape. But the trouble that brought them to Italy will not quite leave them in peace.

Narrated in Lawrence’s perfectly rendered voice, When We Were Romans powerfully evokes the emotions and confusions of childhood—the triumphs, the jealousies, the fears, and the love. Even as everything he understands is turned upside down, Lawrence remains determined to keep his family together, viewing the world from a perspective that is at once endearingly innocent and preternaturally wise.

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  • Nan A. Talese
  • Hardcover
  • July 2008
  • 240 Pages
  • 9780385526258

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$23.95

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About Matthew Kneale

 Matthew Kneale received high praise in 2000 for the award-winning novel English Passengers, which won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award and was short-listed for the Booker Prize. Kneale, whose most recent book is the short story collection Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance, is a keen traveler who has lived in Japan, Canada, and Italy, and has journeyed extensively across the globe, visiting seven continents and walking in mountains from New Guinea to Ethiopia, Patagonia to Pakistan. He lives in Rome, Italy, with his wife and two children.

Praise

“Like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird and Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, young Lawrence brings readers into his world, powerfully connecting us to the drama of his childhood.” Pat Conroy, author of The Prince of Tides and Beach Music

“Kneale, who won the Whitbread for English Passengers, returns with a tale narrated by fiery, precocious, pitch-perfect Lawrence, who at nine years old struggles with being at once a normal kid and, with his parents’ estrangement, the man of the house…. As small incongruities pile up between what Lawrence sees and how he interprets what happens to him, the family’s hurtlings across Europe and the city take on a shattered poignancy.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“[A] haunting story of a family in disintegration…. Kneale has created a marvelously engaging and believable voice for Lawrence, whose account is at once heartbreaking and humorous…. Idiosyncratic, original, and altogether memorable.” Booklist (starred review)

“Think of the delicate balancing act involved in creating a child narratora 9-year-old, say, with a single mother and a baby sister. The boy has to be cute, of course, and also wise in unexpected ways, fragile, protective, funny, solemn and, well, childlike. Matthew Kneale achieves all that brilliantly in When We Were Romans, then gives it another turn of the screw…. [T]he scary truth…is that it’s our valiant young narrator who needs protecting.”
The New York Observer

Discussion Questions

How does Lawrence see the difference between men’s roles and women’s roles? How does he cope with feeling like the man of the family (with tremendous responsibility) as well as his mother’s very young son (with little control over his circumstances)?

How did your perception of Hannah change throughout the novel? Did you trust her husband?

Is the relationship between Lawrence and Jemima typical? Did it remind you of the way you and your siblings dealt with each other?

What do Cloudio, Beppo, the Vanhootens, and others in Italy seem to think of Hannah? What was Lawrence able to see that the adults could not?

What was the effect of Lawrence’s reports on astronomy? How does he feel about the pending cataclysms of the universe?

What did Lawrence teach you about the Roman Empire? In what ways is his recounting of history refreshing? Were you as knowledgeable about science and history when you were his age?

How does Lawrence understand the lunacy of Nero, Caligula, and others? Does he recognize their narcissism and their sadism?

Do Jemima and Lawrence think of their trip as dangerous or amusing? Do they accept their mother’s depiction of the trip as a grand adventure?

What does Hermann mean to Lawrence? Did you have a similar attachment to a pet when you were young? What do Lawrence’s depictions of the other characters as animals indicate about his imaginative powers?

Compare Lawrence’s voice to that of another child-narrated novel you admire. What makes his voice unique? What powerful qualities does a child’s voice possess?

Discuss the scene of Hannah’s return to Scotland. What do Lawrence’s actions indicate about how loyal and impressionable children can be?

What did Rome represent to Hannah? How did the novel’s varying settings create meaningful backdrops for the episodes in Lawrence’s life?

What hallmarks of Matthew Kneale’s storytelling style appear in When We Were Romans? In what ways does this novel expand on themes in his previous works?