Posted on | October 2, 2011 | 11 Comments
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.