"When We Were Romans"

A 9-year-old tells of life on the lam in Rome.

When We Were Romans By Matthew Kneale Doubleday 224 pp. $23.95

Nine-year-old Lawrence, it must be said, is a bit of a mama’s boy. But since his dad has been lurking around their London neighborhood and telling lies to the neighbors, Hannah needs somebody on which to lean.

So “I will help mum” he vows. A trip, he thinks, is just the answer. They’ll go away until his dad leaves town and it’s safe to go back to school.

After remembering how happy she was living in Rome right after college, Hannah decides that an Italian vacation is the solution to their family’s woes. (And besides, Italians understand about mamas and their boys.)

And so, Matthew Kneale’s When We Were Romans begins as Lawrence, his mom, 3-year-old Jemima, and Hermann the hamster pack up the Renault (or renno, as Lawrence spells it) and are off to live the “ ‘dolchay veeter’ which mum said means having a lovely time.”

Once in Rome, Lawrence enlightens readers with excerpts from his Horrible Histories (oh please, tell me that these marvelous books really exist) as the family crashes with Hannah’s old friends and she tries to find a job before their money runs out. (“A Room With a View,” this isn’t.)

Lawrence also picks up a bit of the language. “On the bus going back mum started teaching us italian, she pointed at things out of the window and I learned ‘keyazer’ which means ‘church’ and ‘makiner’ which means ‘car’ and ‘pizza’ which means ‘pizza’ so I thought ‘this is quite easy, actually, perhaps I can learn italian after all.’

Lawrence’s skewed recitals of history alone would be worth the price of a plane ticket to Rome.

Emperor Nero was quite fat, he had a beard and a really thick neck, so it was like his head was just stuck into his body like a tube,” Lawrence explains. “When he became emperor he decided ‘I know what I want to do now, this is what I always really wanted, I will become a famous singer.’ ”

(His take on Nero’s mother, Agrippina, is brilliant.)

While visiting the Pantheon, Lawrence decides the Emperor Caligula, who was a mite touchy about his receding hairline, would love the circular building, because nobody could climb high enough to see his bald head.

Sadly for historians everywhere, Lawrence never makes it inside the Coliseum – his mom was a little short of cash that day.

But just when it seems that they’re settling reasonably well into their adopted country (barring an illegal sublet, a precarious job, nd a few ruffled feathers from Hannah’s friends), Hannah tells Lawrence that his dad has found them again and she’s terrified to go outside.

The little family huddles inside the apartment, while Lawrence tries to think of a way to make everyone safe forever.

Judging by the copious amount of inventive misspellings, Whitbread Award-winner Kneale (“English Passengers”) must have had a wonderful time writing “When We Were Romans” – and probably fried the spell-checker on at least two computers. (At times, you almost need a decoder to figure out exactly what Lawrence is talking about.)

Lawrence is a narrator extraordinaire. He reminded me of two other precarious, precocious heroes, Roddy Doyle’s “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha” and Christopher from Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” – although “When We Were Romans” ultimately doesn’t quite deliver the same punch as those novels.

While Lawrence’s voice is delivered with the literary equivalent of perfect pitch, the storyline is marred by two flaws.

One is that, unlike Lawrence, readers guess far too early on the real terror chasing the family. The other is that the ending feels unbelievable and over-the-top.

As a result, “When We Were Romans” lacks the narrative strength of such child-narrated classics as “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

But if I were planning a trip to Italy, I’d take Lawrence as a tour guide any time.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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