The Victorian Chaise-longue by Marghanita Laski was the second Persephone I read, in October last year, and I enjoyed it but wasn't wowed or as thoroughly charmed as I had been with my first foray into the world of the dove-grey book, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. My third Persephone, Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple, however, I adored for its emotional intensity and raw evocation of infidelity's effects on all concerned. This week I have been tempted to revisit The Victorian Chaise-longue and I definitely will to see if my opinion changes any, but it perhaps explains why I didn't instantly read Little Boy Lost; now that I have, I will be purchasing and reading The Village as soon as I am able and the forthcoming title by Laski published this October, To Bed With Grand Music, was one that appealed anyway.
Do not miss the wonderful opportunity to read this book. It is a egregious crime that it ever fell out of print, for Persephone Books to have to rescue it, but I am glad that they did. Little Boy Lost has a reputation as a heartbreaker and rightly so but although disheartening, it is not completely devastating. I don't want to spoil this book but the unbearably poignant closing lines elicited such a powerful, emotional response in me; I don't think I have ever been so moved by a book's ending. I instantly wanted to reach over and wake up my boyfriend to tell him all about it as I knew I couldn't tell any of you, unless you had also read it. This is a book that I hugged upon closing, with watery eyes.
I hope Jessica Crispin of Bookslut doesn't mind me posting the first part of her review of Little Boy Lost from earlier this year but is truly too good not to share (for the second half of the letter, click on the link and scroll down to January 14th; she doesn't spoil anything.)
Dear Marghanita Laski:
Fuck you. Because of your novel Little Boy Lost, I spent ten minutes yesterday on my living room floor, crying. Over a story about a man incapable of love and a boy who might be his son in a post-WWII orphanage. Are you fucking kidding me? But really pissed me off is the fact that your book is not at all sentimental! Not even a twinge of manipulation, just told simply and plainly. I started muttering to myself about halfway through, talking back to the book, calling Hilary an idiot. Then came the heavy breathing, and then the crying.How evocative a response to a book is that? When Darlene quoted the review opening in her comments earlier this week, it convinced me to pick up Little Boy Lost. I am so thankful to Darlene (and Jessica) for that; I enjoy being emotionally wrung out by a book and this one does that so wonderfully well, without being emotionally manipulative.
The beautifully understated and emotionally evocative novel concerns Hilary Wainwright, a poet and intellectual, who has to leave his wife, Lisa, and their newborn baby, John, in Paris when WWII breaks out. Hilary is English and Lisa is of Polish birth, and part of the Resistance movement; Lisa gives their baby to a friend when she discovers the Gestapo are aware of her involvement and is killed (all of this is discovered in the opening pages). When Jeanne, Lisa's friend, is also killed, the baby boy is thought lost but after the War, Hilary returns to France to search for his son, with the help of Jeanne's fiancé, Pierre. A boy of the right age, blood type (of course during a time when DNA testing was not an option), and circumstances is located in a provincial French town but there is no way of accurately determining whether the boy, Jean, is indeed Hilary's son.
The crux of the novel is of Hilary and Jean's growing relationship over one week and of Hilary's ambivalence towards his growing feelings for the boy, who may or may not be kin, and his contempt for the post-war corruption of France. The emotional state of Hilary is beautifully evoked, and although he and his choices are not always agreeable, his character is sympathetically portrayed. Hilary has experienced such unbearable loss that he closes himself off to loving again because that opens him up to future potential pain; such conflict within his inner-self is deftly evoked.
The traitor emotions of love and tenderness and pity must stay dead in me. I could not endure them to live and then die again.
Jean is once of the sweetest and heartrending children that I have come across in literature and it is impossible not to give your heart to him and his potential fate. "[Jean] walks straight into the reader's heart. He is, in one sense, every lost child of Europe", wrote novelist Elizabeth Bowen and the poet Stevie Smith wrote: "The poor, cold child, starved of love but most endearing, and the father who fears he cannot love, seem frozen in time; there is great depth of feeling in this story and an admirable simplicity of style."
One of my favourite passages, that accurately sums up the dilemma Hilary faces in recognising his son, and is central to the plot:
If he is my son then we met once at the moment of his birth and have had nothing in common ever since. He might tell me what toys he played with - but I have never seen them. He might tell me of other children he knew - but I have never met them. If he remembered being kissed on this particular spot, being put to bed with that particular formula, I would still not know if those were the things that happened between Lisa and my son. I don't even know the little pet names they would have had for each other.
Please read Little Boy Lost. Elizabeth Bowen also wrote in her review that "to miss reading Little Boy Lost would be to by-pass a very searching, and revealing, human experience."