Little Boy Lost, is a book that I have wanted to read since I stumbled upon The Victorian Chaise Longue in the library and fell in love with Marghanita Laski’s straightforward but eloquent and slightly haunting writing style.
Other blogger’s reviews also convinced me that this was a must-read for me, so imagine my joy when my boyfriend bought me the Persephone Classics edition for my birthday!
Little Boy Lost, is the story of a Englishman named Hilary Wainwright, who has lost his wife and child during the occupation of France in the Second World War. Before being taken away by the Nazis, his wife Lisa managed to smuggle their child away to apparent safety, but the little boy was never found. Hilary, now living in England goes back to France to a small town known only by the initial letter ‘A’ after a stranger named Pierre knocks on his door and tells him that he may have found the lost child.
Little Boy Lost is much more than the story of a man’s search for his child; it is also a journey of self-discovery, a tale of life-changing loss and a desperate portrait of post war France. Laski cleverly uses Hilary’s naïve surprise at the extent to which Paris has been devastated and to highlight how terribly Europe had been affected by the Nazi occupation. Hilary is appalled at how different the France he now sees is, to that which he holiday in as a young man. He also notices with a kind of horror how such a civilised society has become corrupt – where people with money can get steak and fried potatoes from black market vendors, but orphans are denied foods as basic as milk and eggs.
Hilary however chooses to enjoy black market pleasures in spite of internal conflict. This is just one of the many examples of his childlike character. Almost from the outset, it is made clear that the book’s title has a dual meaning. It seems that Hilary himself is aware of this. In one passage, he momentarily mistakes a comment by Pierre as being about himself, rather than his lost son.
“‘I’ve got nothing to offer a child and I’ve got nothing to offer Joyce. I just want to be left alone so that I can’t be hurt again.’
Pierre sighed, ‘Poor little boy’.
Hilary slowly realised that the sympathy was not for himself but for the child.”
Hilary is really quite pathetic at times, which at first, along with his tendency towards intellectual snobbery made me dislike him immensely. This utter feebleness is always present and yet the sad thing is that he is quite aware of it.
“Hilary whispered stupidly, ‘I don’t want anyone to be sorry for me,’ and knew for an instant that he did, that he wanted that more than anything in the world.”
It is Laski’s clever storytelling however, which gently creates an understanding between the reader and Hilary as a man who – devastated, by the loss of his wife, who he was passionately in love with – feels he no longer has a ‘capacity for happiness’. There is also evidently some history with his mother, whom he seems to feel cut off from emotionally. This theme is renewed time and time again throughout the book, once when he feels envy towards Monsieur Mercatel – a teacher at the orphanage – whose mother is kind and maternal, and also when, reading Dombey and Son he is moved by one particular passage where ‘Mamma’ is nursing her dying child.
The development of the relationship between Hilary and the little boy – Jean – is quite painful to read. Hilary’s thoughts and emotions fluctuate so much that the reader is left constantly wondering what the outcome of their meeting will be. Is the little boy his own flesh and blood? Can a man who is lost himself, take responsibility for a frail little boy? Will Hilary be honest with himself or submit to cowardice?
Laski uses her words sparingly but in a way that I found deeply affecting – particularly in this sentence where she creates a vision of little, frail Jean overwhelmed by the excitement of the funfair.
“…Jean clutched Hilary’s hand and said nothing, drowned in wondering rapture.”
Little Boy Lost is moving, without being overly sentimental. It conveys the sombre mood of post-war France without making the reader feel as if they are being lectured. It forces the reader to go through a unique journey of understanding with an emotionally frail man, and does it so subtly that you don’t notice until you turn the last page. Little Boy Lost is a poignant and beautiful piece of writing.
Can you think of any characters that you’ve read that you disliked at first and then came to understand?