When his mother decides to pack the family up to go to Rome, nine-year-old Lawrence isn’t sure what to think. All he knows is that suddenly, his father is everywhere, out to get them, and they have to get away. He watches as his mother sinks into mental illness on their exodus, observing all with the sometimes innocent, sometimes surprisingly wise voice of a child. Intertwined with his story are his descriptions of his various interests, like the Solar System and some of the popes.
I loved this book. I’ve since learned that my feelings aren’t universally felt, and I suspect I know why. Lawrence felt like me. How hard is it to grow up with mental illness in your family? Only those of us who have experienced it think about it, just as with any other familial problem. His struggles spoke to me, his thoughts echoed mine when I was around his age – honestly, it was eerie, but I was so moved. I also liked that it was written in his child’s voice. As I was reading it, I was sucked in and totally believed in this character. Matthew Kneale never slips out of Lawrence’s voice and it’s easy to sink in and fall in love with him as his reactions echo that of every child.
I wasn’t bothered by the spelling errors or the run-on grammar; I took it as an echo of Lawrence’s thoughts, as if we were inside his head or he was telling us the story. It didn’t bother me when he spelled names wrong or the new words he was learning were spelled phonetically. I was willing to accept it as the voice of a child, and I think that’s where people have trouble with this book, because they’re not willing to do the same. They get stuck on “Franseen” and Lawrence’s run-on sentences and can’t fall into the illusion. I think this writing style actually made the book stronger because I can just barely remember when my thoughts were like that, too, although I can’t say I had Lawrence’s spelling issues.
I think what moved me most is his relationship with his sister Jemima. I remember feeling very similarly towards my brother, and of course now everything like that is tinged with the edge of my grief. You pull together in such circumstances, even if you fight the rest of the time. And that’s not to mention the end, which made me cry and just felt so true. I even liked Lawrence’s historical and scientific tangents; it gave us a deeper edge into his personality and related his situation to the wider world, like he was expressing his feelings in a different way.
In essence, I unequivocally loved this book. I’m planning on emailing the author just to tell him how incredibly amazing I think it is. I think you should read it, too, but only if you’re willing to suspend disbelief and accept Lawrence’s story. Otherwise, the spelling and grammar will drive you crazy. In the end, this is an extremely accurate (take it from me, it really is) and moving picture from the head of a child whose mother has a mental illness and who tries to adapt in any way he can. Buy When We Were Romans on Amazon.