Marghanita Laski – Little Boy Lost

Posted on | October 2, 2011 | 11 Comments

little_boy_lost

So, you start a book which is meant to result in emotional upheaval, and you keep your distance to begin with, but then the book sucks you in, and you feel your emotions getting the better off you, while the writing itself remains simple and straightforward, with almost no sentimentality. And as you keep turning the pages, you just want the happy ending; the fairy-tale happily ever after. And then the book ends, and you’re just sitting there holding it, stunned into disbelief by the response evoked by a book less than two-hundred-and-fifty pages long.

It’s Christmas Day, 1943, when Hilary, a poet and an intellectual, learns that his little boy, John, is lost. Lisa, his wife who was involved in the Resistence, was killed in Paris by the Gestapo, but before her death, she had asked a friend to look after her baby, who Hilary had seen but once. But on that fateful Christmas Day, a stranger (a Frenchman named Pierre) knocks on the door of Hillary’s English home, informing him that his son has disappeared without a trace, and he would like to help Hillary find the boy.

Post-war, Hillary reluctantly heads to Paris upon Pierre’s request, in order to commence the search for the lost boy – a search that has already been initiated by the resourceful Pierre. But Hilary is not prepared for the war-ravaged Paris that greets him.

Yes, it was familiar again – until the bus creaked past the bombed factory, the makeshift bridge, the shattered rusting locomotives, and the English in the bus shamefacedly whispered to each other, “Do you think we did that?” and then wondered if there could still be friendship between the destroyer and destroyed.

Simply, eloquently put.

Hilary starts following the trail which could potentially lead him to the son he lost about two years ago – almost unwillingly – for, with time, he’s made himself invulnerable to emotions, and is content to live in his memories. The search leads him to a convent in a small town in France, where a boy who might be his son lives. It’s not definite, but the age and blood type match. The hope is that on seeing the boy, Hilary would recognise his son.

Hilary visits the boy (called Jean) in the convent, and starts spending a couple of hours each day with the boy, his affection for the slowly mounting, but the uncertainty as to whether the boy is actually his son not really diminishing. The first meeting is confusing, as at first glance, he thinks that’s his son, but on second glance, he stares at the child in horror and repulsion, certain that the child isn’t his…

…and thus begins the journey of trying to determine if he’s found his little boy…

…But then, Hilary is detached, pragmatic and almost like an icicle at times, that one just wants to physically shake him into finding his human emotions – diametrically polar to some other moments where he buys the child expensive gloves, and gauges his reactions, without the child having to say much, if anything at all.

As the relationship evolves during the course of the week, the child transforms from a shy nervous boy to an excited happy one around Hilary. You can make out that he doesn’t want to disappoint Hilary, and when Hilary comes across as impatient, the boy withdraws into himself. There are moments where, as a reader, you just hate Hilary, for how can someone be so heartless?

Hilary said nothing. He stood there watching the child, feeling only hate for the creature who had put him in this predicament, through whose interventions he had made a fool of himself. The little coward, he was saying, the little coward.

Jean whimpered, “I want my red gloves back.”

You’re finding out you can’t buy happiness, thought Hilary coldly. Aloud, he said, “You can’t have them back. Once you’ve given a present, it’s a present forever.”

Jean stopped whimpering, only stood there shaking and staring. You’re finding out what desolation means, thought Hilary savagely […].

But – but it’s the absolute last line of the book that makes it so… touching and heart-rending. Just the last line. Honestly, words cannot describe the impact they make.

While the heart of the book is about the father looking for his lost son, Laski pays attention to the rampant corruption existing in Paris at the time, and the black market, which emphasised the difference between the haves and the have-nots, and the whole “survival of the fittest” philosophy. She also highlights the slight disconnect between the locals, as they attempt to determine on which side their counterparts stood during the Occupation.

“But at least the Occupation showed each man what he was capable of. Don’t you think it was something to be able to find out?”

“No, why?” said Pierre. “Some found they were better than they thought, some worse. We are finding that out all the time in our everyday lives.”

“But we’re not conscious of it all the time,” argued Hilary. For some reason, this point seemed of vital importance to him. “Surely occupation or battle or something like that brings the whole thing to an inescapable point – a sort of judgment by ordeal?”

If you haven’t yet, please do read this book.

I’ve read two books by Laski so far, and have two more to go (which have been printed by Persephone) – her writing is amazing, and I can’t wait to read the others.

Comments

11 Responses to “Marghanita Laski – Little Boy Lost”

  1. Sarah
    October 2nd, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

    Great review! Laski hasn’t cornered the market in eloquence :)

    The Victorian Chaise-Longue is very good, but quite, quite different in tone and concerns, from the sounds of it. This sounds more wide ranging in its subjects, and I am intrigued by the apparent versatility of Laski.

    They had a copy of Little Boy Lostin my local Oxfam book shop last week and I didn’t snaffle it up. What was I thinking?! Wonder if they’re open on Sundays…?

  2. The Book Whisperer
    October 2nd, 2011 @ 10:49 pm

    I loved this book when I read it last year. And I wholeheartedly agree with you about the last line – I bawled my eyes out!

    I loved The Victorian Chaise-Longue and I have another of hers on my shelf (forget which one without going to look). She’s a great writer isn’t she?

  3. JoAnn
    October 3rd, 2011 @ 4:18 am

    Oh, this is actually in my tbr pile!! It will be my next Persephone.

  4. anothercookiecrumbles
    October 3rd, 2011 @ 6:45 pm

    @Sarah : I’ve read To Bed With Grand Music, which was totally different as well, and I’m looking forward to The Victorian Chaise-Longue. I can’t believe you passed up an opportunity to pick this up in Oxfam. I hope you found it, if you did go back there. It is worth a read. Really really is.

    @The Book Whisperer : She is amazing. Oh that last line… just thinking about it… It’s books like this that make me so glad to have discovered Persephone. Thank you kind blogosphere.

    @JoAnn : Oh, you’re in for a treat. I’m so envious that you’re going to read it for the first time!! :)

  5. Alita
    October 3rd, 2011 @ 7:49 pm

    I loved this book. Like you, I tried to keep my distance at first, but it was impossible not to get sucked in. Some of the comments made by Jean, stated so matter-of-factly, pulled on my heartstring so very hard. His reaction to the red gloves and his wondering as to why he had never received a present before – oh my.

    And the ending? Brilliant. It’s one that suck with me for days afterwards and the more I thought about it, the more brilliant I realized it was.

    Now I wish I had my own copy so I can read it again! I really do need to read more of Laski’s stuff.

  6. Bellezza
    October 4th, 2011 @ 3:35 am

    Your first paragraph describes exactly the way I felt; I was half anxious to finish it, half holding myself back. I just lived in horror that he would abandon the little boy. But, it remains one of the most powerful books of the year for me. I, too, love Laski’s writing. Well, this and The Chaise Longue. The one about the wife and her adultery? Not so much…see? I can’t even remember the name of it.

  7. Darlene
    October 5th, 2011 @ 12:52 pm

    Elizabeth Bowen described the last line as the best in 20th century literature. It was brilliant!

  8. Sarah
    October 5th, 2011 @ 5:12 pm

    Oxfam came good. Little Boy Lost is next up :)

  9. anothercookiecrumbles
    October 8th, 2011 @ 9:47 am

    @Alita : An own copy would be highly recommended. The directness of the entire narrative – it’s so detached, yet so emotional. Every time I think of the ending, I’m blown away all over again.

    @Bellezza : To Bed With Grand Music? I thought that was very good as well, but obviously, for completely different reasons. I need to read The Victorian Chaise Longue next – heard such good things about it, although I don’t think it would really compare to this.

    @Darlene : I couldn’t agree with her more!!

    @Sarah : Yay! Hope you enjoy it. :)

  10. Literary Kitty
    October 8th, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

    Wow, you really capture the mood of the book – and I love a mindblowing ending. Definitely one I could get on board with by the sounds of it!

  11. Persephone Book No 28: Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski « The Persephone Forum
    August 1st, 2012 @ 10:31 am

    […] So, you start a book which is meant to result in emotional upheaval, and you keep your distance to begin with, but then the book sucks you in, and you feel your emotions getting the better off you, while the writing itself remains simple and straightforward, with almost no sentimentality. And as you keep turning the pages, you just want the happy ending; the fairy-tale happily ever after. And then the book ends, and you’re just sitting there holding it, stunned into disbelief by the response evoked by a book less than two-hundred-and-fifty pages long.  anothercookiecrumbles […]

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