The technique of portraying adult experience through a child’s eyes and words—accomplished in classic works as otherwise dissimilar as What Maisie Knew and The Catcher in the Rye—is knowingly adopted by the Whitbread Award–winning British author (Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance, 2005, etc.).
His family’s adventure abroad is recounted by nine-year-old Lawrence, a precociously ruminative charmer who intuits connections between historical and astronomical information and the emotional unraveling of his “mum” Hannah, who has spirited Lawrence and his bratty younger sister Jemima away from home in Scotland to Rome (where Hannah had formerly lived, happily), far from the ex-husband who, Hannah insists, is stalking them. As the itinerant trio ricochet among stays with various old friends of Hannah’s, Lawrence hesitantly adapts to new surroundings while finding refuge in caring for his beloved hamster Hermann and summarizing for us what he has learned from potted histories of the misdeeds of notorious men. His kid’s-eye views of favorite atrocities orchestrated by Caligula and Nero, for example, are cockeyed delights that feature hilariously inconsistent misspellings. The reader wonders from the beginning whether Hannah’s shrill denunciations of the children’s father are to be trusted. When they return to Scotland to confront the evil their dad supposedly embodies (comparable, in Lawrence’s imagination, to a galaxy-swallowing Black Hole), things take a violent, poignant turn for the worse. The bleak concluding pages hold two contrasting possibilities in a heart-rending balance: Will Lawrence inherit Hannah’s self-destructive instability, or will his innate intelligence and goodness rescue him from her influence? This is the novel that Patrick McCabe’s over-praised The Butcher Boy ought to have been, redeemed by Kneale’s sure-handed restraint.
One of the best explorations of a child’s mind and heart in recent fiction, and its talented author’s best book yet.