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Family Flight

Sunday, August 17, 2008

WHEN WE WERE ROMANS

By Matthew Kneale

Doubleday. 224 pp. $23.95

Matthew Kneale is an extraordinary British writer whose new novel is easy to admire because of its artistry, but difficult to read because of its painful subject. If "extraordinary" sounds too much like hyperbolic reviewer-speak, I would direct skeptics to Kneale's English Passengers (2000), his award-winning novel about the mid-19th-century colonizing of Tasmania that's part rollicking high-seas adventure, part Heart of Darkness, and that can only be described, without the faintest whiff of exaggeration, as extraordinary.

The quality that sets Kneale apart is his talent for impersonation. He told the story of English Passengers using no fewer than 20 idiosyncratic voices, including those of a rum smuggler, a delusional missionary, a racist doctor, a penal colony inmate and several of Tasmania's last remaining aborigines. The narrative seemed not so much written as clamorously populated.

His latest novel features only a single voice yet is an equally impressive act of ventriloquism. The voice belongs to Lawrence, a 9-year-old British schoolboy on whom the reader is entirely dependent. That dependence requires us to hack through a narrative environment thick with run-on sentences, erratic spelling and a child's-eye view of turbulent and sometimes disturbing circumstances with his loving but chaotic protector, his "mum," Hannah.

"Mum is really clever," Lawrence confides, so when she suggests rather suddenly that they pick up and drive from their English country cottage to Rome, where she lived before her marriage, Lawrence unquestioningly complies. He packs up as many precious items as he can fit in Mum's "renno," wedging in his hamster, his Tintin and Asterix books, his Lego and Hot Wheels and his 3-year-old sister, Jemima.

The journey, while exhilarating, is far from a lark. As Lawrence describes it, their "adventure" is an attempt to flee the vaguely articulated menace posed by Lawrence's estranged father, who, according to Mum, has been spying on them, breaking into their cottage and turning their neighbors against them. "I will help mum," determines Lawrence, who assumes the role of the little husband and allows himself to feel angry or scared only during the brief lulls in Hannah's periods of manic desperation. "I cant get upset too actually or there will be nobody left," he says plainly, wringing our hearts.

Many things go wrong once they reach Italy: Their car breaks down; Mum periodically breaks down ("One moment she was all fine and then it was like a big ray just shon on her and made her go wrong"); she loses her passport and runs out of money; they wear out their welcome at the homes of Mum's old friends. Yet while these setbacks and the accompanying hum of anxiety are unnerving, the trip is not entirely a calamity.

For every mishap, there is a taste of elation: the "lovely fountains" at the "Piazzer navoner," a surrey ride at the "viller borgasey," the scrumptiousness of chocolate "crussons" and "spaggetties," the purchase of toy Roman soldiers, with which Lawrence makes plans to build a fort. These highlights shine with relief and even grandeur: "I thought 'hurrah hurrah, now we are real Romans' I thought 'now we will really be safe.' " If only that were true; if only the threat of his dad's encroachment did not devolve into a nightmare of his mother's paranoia.

During one of her manic episodes, Mum and Lawrence build a cardboard Roman fort together, an activity that lives in his memory as a magical event. "It was like we were solders in a battile," he says. Their enemies might be real or they might be imagined, but what's absolutely true for Lawrence is his unshakable belief in the conspiracy of his and his mother's love. "Conspire" means "to breathe together," and so he does with Mum, and so we do with him.

-- Donna Rifkind reviews frequently for Book World.

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