Meet the child in charge

If mythologist James Hillman was correct that "The realm of Hades has become childhood," then Matthew Kneale's "When We Were Romans" qualifies as an unguided tour through several circles of hell.

Unguided, but not unaccompanied. Rising U.K. literary superstar Kneale -- whose 2000 novel "English Passengers" won the Whitbread Book Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize -- creates a winning youthful narrator. Nine-year-old Lawrence mesmerizes with a masterful first-person account of an escape from London to Rome -- with his "mum," Hannah, and younger sister, Jemima -- from his estranged father, who is, Hannah believes, stalking them.

Lawrence is totally in control of his narrative, while what he describes is totally out of control. The effect is hair-raising.

"When We Were Romans" opens with the first of many learned disquisitions on science and history, typical of that age's thirst for facts, especially those about the weird and the gross. Lawrence's voice is irresistible and engulfs us in his world from the beginning: "One day I bet there will be a big disaster, we will go nearer and nearer and then suddenly we will get pulled right in. It will be like a big hand gets us so we will vanish, nothing can get out of a black hole you see, we will be stuck there forever."

Kneale's hand is visible in Lawrence's run-on discourse: Lawrence's interests -- whether about a dead medieval pope exhumed by his successor and put on trial, or about the emperor Nero's attempts to assassinate his mother, or about the mysteries of dark matter -- mirror his situation.

Lawrence, the firstborn in a dysfunctional family, must hold it together when his mother is coming apart at the seams or his sister is having a preschooler's temper tantrum. His life is a series of unfathomable mysteries that he must negotiate without support or training.

Imagine being told as a 9-year-old that you are moving away from your home tomorrow and you must make the determination on your own and on the fly what possessions to take with you: "I wanted to take ... all my Tintin and Asterix books, all my Lego ... and of course there was Hermann and his cage, but that was much too much for my three boxes ... 'uh oh, this will be hard.' "

Or that your father has taken up residence in an apartment building across from yours and has a key to your apartment, so you must protect your mother: "I thought 'what will I do?' I looked at the door and the lock was locked, the key was in it, the bolt was shut too, so I thought 'that's all right' but then I turned round and picked up a chair anyway, I picked it up so I could hit him on his head."

Or that Hermann, your hamster, will turn up safe, even though his cage is empty and you suspect foul play.

As Hannah spins an ever more implausible tale about her ex-husband's malicious intentions, readers of all stripes will find themselves turning pages until there aren't any more.

If you are a parent, gape in horror as Lawrence dispassionately paints a mother teetering on the edge of sanity.

If you are the offspring of an alcoholic, a control freak, a narcissist or other kind of mentally dicey father or mother, prepare to relive your childhood nightmares.

If you wonder why some people are allowed to have children when they can't cope with their own lives, you'll identify powerfully with the artsy bunch on whom Hannah, Lawrence and Jemima rely for support and community in Rome.

If you have been broke, at the end of your rope, divorced, depressed, desperate, on the run, afraid someone was out to get you, absolutely sure of yourself and yet completely clueless, well, beware. This book will make you bite your nails to the quick.

Is it a downer? Strangely enough, "When We Were Romans" uplifts, and not just because Kneale chooses to bar his readers from the lowest circle of hell and instead goes for resurrection.

"When We Were Romans" is buoyed by the power of Lawrence's spirit. It is a long tradition in fiction (and some would say a cliché) to attempt a young narrator who shows rather than tells a story in such finely observed detail that no adult reader can miss the import and the message. The tradition continues because readers are always eager to anoint the next Scout Finch, or the next Holden Caulfield. Kneale's Lawrence is the anointed, the real deal.