The history boy

The 9-year-old narrator of the heartbreaking "When We Were Romans" flees family chaos through literature.

Topics: Fiction, Books,

The history boy

Some unreliable narrators can’t be trusted because they’re self deluding (Humbert Humbert being the best known example), others because they’re mad, like Patrick McGrath’s Spider, and others because they’re simply unable to grasp some vital aspect of their story, like Christopher Boone, the autistic protagonist of Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Lawrence, the 9-year-old who relates the events in Matthew Kneale’s delightful and heartbreaking new novel, “When We Were Romans,” isn’t any of these things, though he’s likely to remind many contemporary readers of Christopher Boone because he doesn’t entirely understand his own circumstances. He’s not so much incapable of doing so as he is conflicted about it. Unlike Scout Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the most famous child narrator of all, Lawrence inhabits a world in which it is not always so easy to tell who’s right and who’s wrong.

In this, as in most things, Lawrence is a pretty typical British boy, an aficionado of Hot Wheels and Tintin saddled with an exasperating 3-year-old sister, Jemima. Describing their skirmishes over his cherished pet hamster, he explains, “she really likes Hermann, she always wants to change his water and give him his food though I won’t let her of course, because she is just a baby, she would do it all wrong.” The novel is related in this sometimes breathless, very boyish run-on style, complete with misspellings and malapropisms, as Lawrence reels drastically between petty, childish squabbling with Jemima and valiant efforts to assume responsibilities way beyond his years.



The two siblings live with their mother in Britain, but the novel’s title refers to a few weeks they spend in Rome after fleeing from their estranged father, who poses some undefined menace. Mum (whose name is Hannah) once lived in Rome and still has friends there; for her, it represents a carefree, romantic, unbroken period in her life. But getting there proves a challenge, since, as Lawrence puts it, Hannah sometimes “just gets stuck and doesn’t know what to do next, so I have to help her and give her a little push.” The threesome makes it as far as Tuscany in their beat-up car before Hannah gets stuck in an “agro turismo, which mum says means staying on a farm.” She refuses to get out of bed, and Lawrence concludes, “I can’t get upset too actually or there will be nobody left.”

Although they do finally make it to Rome, where they proceed to camp out in various friends’ apartments, Hannah’s paralysis is the first sign that Lawrence and his family have brought as many problems with them as they’ve attempted to leave behind. One of his mum’s Roman friends gives him volumes from a series of children’s books called “Hideous Histories” (clearly based on the very popular real-life series called “Horrible Histories” — “history with the nasty bits left in”). “Calamitous Caesars” is one title, and there’s another filled with stories about wicked popes and their dastardly doings. Into the main story, Lawrence occasionally drops anecdotes plucked from these books or mind-blowing facts gleaned from an astronomy book given to him by his grandfather — black holes, dark matter and something called the Great Attractor, a potent hunk of nothing that the entire universe is hurtling toward at unfathomable speeds.

At first, connecting these stories to the family’s adventures bouncing among flats occupied by his mother’s increasingly impatient and unsympathetic friends seems like authorial intrusion. Surely no boy of 9 could ever conceive of artfully juxtaposing an account of Nero’s oft-frustrated attempts to assassinate his mother with the boy’s own disillusionment upon discovering his mum canoodling with one of their married hosts? Eventually, though, it becomes plain that Lawrence doesn’t perceive the connection himself. While doing what he must during those times when there is “nobody left” to cope with the chaos of their situation, he can’t afford not to believe in the adults around him. His beloved books, full of gruesome yarns and cosmic destruction set in remote times and places, offer intimations of life’s cruelty that he can contemplate from a comfortable distance.

Yet contemplate them he does, which is precisely why such stories are so precious to a child pushed to the brink of untimely knowledge. Thus, Kneale (author of the wonderful Whitbread Award-winning novel “English Passengers”) makes an eloquent case for the mock-dark strain of children’s fiction and nonfiction — not just the Horrible Histories, but books like the Lemony Snicket series. We, the adult readers of “When We Were Romans,” learn to peer through the screen of Lawrence’s limited point of view to see what’s really going on even as our narrator begins to guess at what lies behind his mother’s version of events — and even to catch a glimpse of the mysteries of his own heart. In life as well as in books, there are some truths that it’s much better to sneak up on.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>