When We Were Romans, By Matthew Kneale

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The Independent Culture

Lawrence's mum is whisking him, his hamster and his sister, Jemima, off to Rome. What Lawrence knows but Jemima doesn't, because she is too little, is that the reason for the trip is that they are running from their dad, who has been stalking them. But what we increasingly intuit and Lawrence doesn't, is that his mother is paranoid, and probably manic depressive; that his father doesn't follow them to Rome and isn't trying to poison them.

This is a simple story, with a predictable, sad trajectory. What makes it so affecting is the precision and care with which Matthew Kneale measures out its dramatic ironies, and above all the authenticity of Lawrence's voice. To achieve the latter, Kneale accurately replicates a nine-year-old's syntax and spelling mistakes. But more importantly he gets the skewed perspective exactly right – the way that, for example, Lawrence is as concerned that Jemima has got blackcurrent jam on the sheets as he is that his mum won't get out of bed. This entire novel is made up of telling detail.