Matthew Kneale is a stylistic chameleon. His 2000 Booker-shortlisted English Passengers was a swashbuckling account of 20 characters involved in the search for an elusive land. He followed that up with a short story collection and novella. And now, he is back with When We Were Romans, a heartbreaking story of a young boy and his mother's battle with folie a deux.
Folie a deux is a mental disorder that occurs when two people share the same delusion. While one of them is genuinely delusional, the other one simply plays along, at times missing the boundary between fiction and reality.
Lawrence is a 9-year-old astronomy buff who is preparing for a road trip at the beginning of the novel, because his mother, Hannah, wants to take him and his sister Jemima to a place where their father "doesn't follow us . . . somewhere really far away. Somewhere he'd never be able to find us. Somewhere like Rome."
And so begins a trip from England to the Italian capital that is always on the cusp of disaster. Hurtling from one residence to the next with her children, surviving on the mercy of her friends from an earlier time, Hannah is on the perpetual lookout for tiny moments of reprieve. Since Lawrence is the narrator, Kneale satisfyingly defers exploring what monstrosity Hannah's husband has perpetrated for her to fear him so.
Which, of course, is artistic license, for Hannah's husband is no monster, just someone she has differences with. In the garb of a chivalrous son, Hannah has the perfect accomplice to her delusions. Lawrence is ever sensitive to his mother's distress. So touching is his willingness to reassure her at every juncture that one can't help but weep at the sadness of the situation.
If you enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, definitely pick up When We Were Romans. It will make you thank God for children in a world made absurd by adults.
Vikram Johri is a writer in New Delhi, India.