Friday, 28 August 2009

Little Boy Lost

I purchased Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski in February of this year (I tend to purchase the Classics from online booksellers and the dove-greys from Persephone themselves, which is why I can be clear on when I bought it) and I am ashamed that I haven't read it until now. Not ashamed because it has been unread for so long as I have books on my bookshelves that have stayed unread for far longer but ashamed because I didn't realise straight off how much I would adore this book. This has immediately become one of my Persephone favourites and is definitely my reading highlight of this week.

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."


Bloomsbury Bell said...

Little Boy Lost sounds like a must read - it is now on my holiday reading list.
I have had such a great week reading all your posts. Please repeat the Persephone Reading Week next year when I will make sure my holiday coincides!

Paperback Reader said...

Naomi, it is, and I hope you love it as much as I did.

I am glad you have enjoyed the week and posts; we will be sure to repeat it!

Nymeth said...

Well, what can I say but wow! This - "This is a book that I hugged upon closing, with watery eyes" - is something that I do too, but it takes a very special book to make me do it. Also, I loved the paragraph from Bookslut!

StuckInABook said...

I've had this for years, so will have to actually READ it. I thought Persephone Reading Week would help clear some of my backlog of unread Persephones, but it's just made me want to read all the ones I haven't done yet!

Paperback Reader said...

Ana, the Bookslut quote is brilliant! The end of this book was a major wow moment for me and I am still reeling from it today.

Simon, I wholeheartedly agree: instead of reducing my Persephone reading list, it has drastically increased it!

Darlene said...

I'm so glad that you were wrung out and enjoyed the experience Claire! I was afraid of being too upset by the book but your review and comments from m on my blog have convinced to venture forth. When you love a book so much that you want to wake someone up and tell them about it, that's powerful.

Paperback Reader said...

Oh please venture forth, Darlene! I am sure that you won't be disappointed.

farmlanebooks said...

What a powerful review! I almost bought a copy straight away!

I am resisting though - I'll see if I can find a copy in the library.

Paperback Reader said...

Jackie, mine or the one from bookslut? ;) It's a powerful book.
Darlene has just ordered a copy!

claire said...

This is on top of my Persephone wish list so I'm very very happy to hear it's so good! I also plan to read The Village and the one that's coming out next month. Wonderful review! Does it surpass your love for Lady Rose? :)

Paperback Reader said...

I'm sure you'll love it, Claire! I'll definitely be purchasing her other works.

It doesn't surpass my love for Lady Rose but it was close... Each is tragic but in different ways. Little Boy Lost isn't one I would read as a weepie yet comfort book, but more of a weepie weepie!

claire said...

Eep. A weepie weepie! You're right, though, Lady Rose is comfy weepie. :D

Paperback Reader said...

I think it's important to make the distinction :p.