Lawrence, the protagonist of Matthew Kneale’s new novel, is a charming seven-year-old. He is alert and interested in the sort of things we like little boys to be interested in – ancient Romans, soldiers, astronomy. He natters on, in his perky, off-beat first-person voice, about everything from his own domestic details to the biography of Caligula and the unpredictable behaviour of black holes – while his own little world is falling spectacularly apart. He is the literary first cousin of Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke.
Lawrence thinks that his story is the account of his journey to Rome with his mother, Hannah, and little sister, Jemima. Although he has been happy living in their cottage, likes his school and is taking his SATS seriously, Lawrence is excited when his mother announces that they are going