Saturday, May 08, 2010

'Little Boy Lost'

by Marghanita Laski
Fiction, 1949 (republished in 2001)
Persephone Books, pb, 225 p.
From the review by Nicholas Lezard in the Guardian*, (quoted in part on the Persephone website):

Hilary Wainwright, poet and intellectual, is enduring a grim wartime Christmas at his stiflingly suburban mother's house when a Frenchman, Pierre, turns up to give him news of the small son that he had to leave in occupied France. After the war, Hilary returns to a blasted and impoverished France in order to trace the child. Pierre thinks he may have found him. So the novel turns on these questions: is the child really Hilary's? And, after five years of having kept the child's possible existence a secret, does Hilary want him? 

These are questions you can take to be as metaphorical as you wish: the novel works perfectly well as straight narrative. It's extraordinarily gripping; it has the page-turning compulsion of a thriller while at the same time being written with perfect clarity and precision.
I finished this last night and wanted to post about it right away for Persephone Week, but I found I needed to let it just sit for awhile so I could get my thoughts together, and I’m still not sure I can properly do it justice.

On the surface Little Boy Lost is simply the story of a man searching for his lost son in a corrupt, and turbulent post-war France. But it’s so much more than that. Hilary, the father of the lost boy, is rather lost himself. Ever since his wife was killed during the war, at the hands of the Gestapo, he hasn’t allowed any emotion to come into his very ordered life. It’s safer that way. So when he meets, and gets to know, little Jean, who might be the son he only saw once on the day he was born, his personal struggle against his growing emotion is described so well, so poignantly. At times while he ponders whether he actually wants a child, even if his own is found, I just wanted to shake him. His thoughts, which Laski gives us in all their frustrating glory, are just so selfish, but also a little bit understandable too. His childhood, and the war, they have left their painful mark on him, leading to a very tension-filled, for the reader anyway, decision.

The late addition of another character to the story to bring about a conclusion seemed a bit forced, but it did further illustrate his fear of loving someone again. I was almost afraid to turn the last few pages not knowing which way it would go, but as Anne Sebba says in the Afterword:
Only in the final pages does Hilary come to understand himself, enabling Marghanita Laski to write one of the most poignant endings in twentieth century fiction – a perfect ending to a beautifully written book.
And I completely agree. It really was a perfect ending, but I won’t say anything more about it, you’ll just have to read it for yourself. What a lovely book! My very first Persephone is a definite success, and now I can’t wait to read more of them.

My Rating: 4.5/5

Hilary was a fast reader and dreaded nothing more than to be stranded without print. He would read anything sooner than nothing, fragments of sporting news torn up in a lavatory, a motor journal on an hotel table, an out-of-date evening paper picked up in a bus. He would covetously eye the books held by strangers in trains, forcing them into conversation until he could offer his own read book in exchange for something new. But if, by ill-luck, he was reduced to reading nothing but haphazard chance finds that offered his mind only the bare fact of being print, he would become dreary, unhappy, uneasy, like a gourmet who suffers from indigestion after eating bad food.
*Touched by the past (Nicholas Lezard's article in the Guardian)

Buy Little Boy Lost at Persephone Books | |

Thanks again to Karen of Book Bath for sending me Little Boy Lost for the Persephone Secret Santa last year, and to Claire and Verity for hosting Persephone Reading Week, the nudge I needed to finally read it.

Also reviewed by:
Paperback Reader
Savidge Reads
Stuck in a Book
If you've reviewed this title, let me know and I'll link to it here.

The small print:  This book was received as a gift.  Links in this post to Amazon or The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively.  Purchases made via these links earn me a very small commission.  For more information please visit my About Page.


  1. Isn't it a wonderful book?!

    I read another Laski novel, To Bed With Grand Music, this week and the protagonist, Deborah, was even more selfish and infuriating that Hilary; Laski can certainly depict characters that you want to shake very hard very well!

    Could I ask a favour please? Could you change the link to my review to that on my new site please? Thanks.

  2. Oh! This sounds like something I would really enjoy. I wasn't interested until I read your last paragraph, but knowing that you thought the ending was perfect and seeing that 4.5 rating sold me on the book. Great review, Nat!

  3. For some reason this is a Persephone that I have shied away from. But reading your review is making my ordering fingers itch. I think I might have to buy this one.

  4. You have me simply drooling over this book now!! And I actually own it! It's my only Persephone. I just have a feeling that I'm going to love Laski. Of all the Persephone authors, she just really sticks out to me.

  5. I just read this one, too, and super loved it. Interestingly enough, I wasn't so keen on the ending. What really made me love it was Laski's ability to writes so sophisticatedly in a very enjoyable manner. I'm glad your first Persephone was a success. I had also read Laski's To Bed with Grand Music and I must say you will probably never go wrong with her!

  6. I've been pondering which Laski novel to get recently so it's nice to know you loved this book. It seems a very complex and emotive book. I also read my first Persephone this week and am in the middle of my second one.

  7. I've just read this and loved it too! Like you I found it an incredibly moving book, but wonder how I'm going to talk about it! You've done a great review here though.

  8. I'm sitting here thinking "I want need this! It MUST be by next Persephone!". Then again, I've been saying this a lot this week :P It truly sounds like a stunning book.

  9. oh, this sounds so good! I'm really wanting to read more Persephones....

  10. Sounds fascinating. I'm adding it to my to-read list. Do you think there's enough about WWII to add to the Book Reviews/Recommending Reading pages on War Through the Generations?

    Diary of an Eccentric


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