This is going to be the least helpful book post I've possibly ever written about a book that has readily earned a constellation of star ratings here for that extra special buzz factor. I can't describe this add-on je ne sais qoi thing, it's quite intangible but I know it when I read a book that has it.
It's a feeling that just surfaces as I read.
When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale arrived a week or so ago and the first thing to mention is the book's unusual size.
It's tall and narrow. Usual width but about 2cms extra on the height and now I'm trying to think of a reason for that, perhaps there isn't one but I'd hate to think I'd missed something, like it's trying to be a lego brick or a brick out of the Coliseum or something clever like that.
That aside Lawrence and his little sister Jemima find themselves uprooted and off to a new life in Rome with their mother who has decided they must leave England. Life becomes a catalogue of sofa-surfing homelessness and uncertainty for the family, with all the hopes and anxieties of the children acted out in a city dominated by its history.Lawrence embraces that history with the schoolboy enthusiasm that he also reserves for his galaxies of information on the solar system.
As is my wont I didn't read any detailed reviews beforehand, just plunged straight in and this is ABSOLUTELY WHAT YOU MUST DO.
Don't read any reviews, ignore all those literary critics who dig deep and say "the underlying themes in this book are of course....it's not a book about this....it's a book about that..." just start reading because the gradual unfolding of events is part of the effect of the book.
Have no fear, you'll know what it's all been about by the end.
It was important for me to read seven year old Lawrence's first person narrative as if I was him and only with his degree of belief in what was happening and his understanding and interpretation of it all.
So you see there is so much I could wax lyrical about because there's so much more going on, but I'm sorry I just can't tell you. I couldn't bear to spoil the complete When We Were Romans experience for you.
The childish spelling was a high risk strategy in my mind and my initial thoughts were of the heart-sink variety, but it paid huge dividends and constantly worked to increase my immersion in the book.
I can't begin to imagine how young Matthew must have felt after a long day's writing and thinking like a seven year old. It's all pitch perfect so I expect he had to go off and play with his fort and toy soldiers for a while to just wind down and get out of character. Probably a bit of foot-stamping and sulking helped and a nice bowl of ice cream might have put everything right.
Hats off to Matthew Kneale who has pulled off something quite remarkable with this book and now I'm wondering what I may have missed in not reading English Passengers.
Now I'm going to be bold because the Booker approacheth and I have sensibly made not a single prediction about possible longlisters but I'm feeling really rash so I'm going to suggest two and there's going to be an almighty muddle and a mix-up if perchance they both make it but here goes....
When We Were Bad by Charlotte Mendelson
When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale
And the caveat, even if they don't make it...after all who knows, some madness may have meant they weren't even entered, but for goodness sake read them anyway, oh yes and then read the literary critics or we'll be in terrible trouble again here in litblogland, and I'm off to get my hands on English Passengers.