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):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.
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.
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 | Amazon.com | BookDepository.co.uk
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.
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Stuck in a Book
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