Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski

Well what can be said? What can be said about a book that makes you want to reach in and scoop up the characters and cuddle them and tell them everything is going to be alright in a few pages, they just need to hold on a little bit longer? What can be said about a book that has you longing for a conclusion that you are afraid is never going to come? What can be said about a book that makes you emotional and maternal and weepy and a little bit shaky? What can be said?!

I am tearing up a little bit just remembering the conclusion of this marvellous, unputdownable read. I was sitting on the train and staring out of the window, blinking back my over emotional delicate lady tears and thinking why did it take me so long to discover this remarkable book? I’ve known about it for ages and ages and I have heard great things about it from many people whose opinions I trust. What prevented me from reading it was that I had read a bit of The Victorian Chaise Longue, thought it was alright but it didn’t grip me, and then decided that all her books were going to be like that so I wouldn’t bother with her others unless someone bought me a copy. What a bad judgement I made! I have learned my lesson well and truly, because Marghanita Laski just rocketed up my favourite authors list and The Village is going to be my next read after a couple of others that I am supposed to be reading first (yes, yes, one of them is The Children’s Book, I said I’d read it and I will…next week…).

So I have Jane over at FleurFisher Reads to thank for picking me as the winner of her Persephone Week Prize Draw and sending me Little Boy Lost as my prize (picture shows the lovely card she sent too), because if she hadn’t have done so, I probably wouldn’t have read it for years and what a world of emotional torment I would have been missing out on if I had have waited that long! I gasp at the thought!

I’m sure you all know the basic plot of this but I’ll rehash it anyway just in case. Hilary is an English intellectual, battered emotionally by the fallout of World War II; his beautiful and much beloved Polish wife, Lisa, was killed by the Gestapo in Paris and his son, whom he only saw briefly just after he was born, is missing, lost somewhere in France. Hilary is afraid of emotion and of love; he doesn’t want to give anything of himself to anyone, or dwell on the past, because he doesn’t want to risk being hurt again. This makes him come across as cold and unfeeling, but he’s not, not at all; he has just built barriers around his heart to protect himself from feeling the pain of losing someone he loves all over again. This would be enough to make most women’s hands go to their hearts and sigh but…there is yet more to come. On Christmas Day after the war has ended, a mysterious Frenchman by the name of Pierre comes to Hilary’s door and asks to speak to him privately. He has news of where his son might be, and is willing to help him find the little boy he only saw once, at a few days old, and who will now be five.

Hilary’s last letter from Lisa contained a promise from her that she would make sure their little boy John was safe; for her sake, she says, Hilary must do everything he can to find their son again and bring him home. As much as Hilary is afraid of loving, and of any intrusion into his now safely ordered life, he agrees to go with Pierre to track down the boy that could be his son, out of love for his wife.

The essential dilemma for Hilary is that he has no idea whether this boy is his son or not. He doesn’t have a photograph of him, only saw him when he was a newborn, red, crying little thing and has no idea of how his wife spoke to him or played with him. There are no points of reference he can use to identify the child unless he sees a clear resemblance either to himself or Lisa, and it is this anguish of not knowing, and not wanting to take the wrong child, but at the same time feeling himself falling in love with this gorgeous little imp of a boy who tugs at his coat and wants to see the trains (oh, I am getting teary again just thinking of the little thing!) and who shows him his broken and battered toys as if they were the finest jewels in the world, that makes this novel so heartrending.

Hilary stays in the little town where the boy lives in an orphanage for a week, and he visits him every day with a view to making a decision about whether he thinks he is his son or not by the end of that week. Hilary wavers, he struggles, he fights against the new feelings of love he desperately doesn’t want to feel again, or allow to influence his decision. He is frightened of having his life turned upside down, frightened of making the wrong decision, frightened of abandoning this little boy, but also frightened of abandoning his real son if he takes this child without being certain and stops the search for his own boy, who might still be out there somewhere. Hilary’s determination to be quite clinical and factual and make the ‘right’ decision without getting emotionally involved becomes more and more difficult as he finds the little Jean working his way into his heart. As his mind becomes more and more confused he allows himself to be infatuated by a local woman, but as his lustful desire for her that has nothing to do with love becomes more and more pronounced, Hilary starts to realise that, after all, his life is empty, and love might be just the thing he needs.

A vulnerable man, afraid of his emotions! A lonely and abandoned little boy, desperate to be loved! How much more can Marghanita Laski tug on a woman’s heartstrings?! I felt like I had well and truly been through the wringer after reading Little Boy Lost, but every tear was worth it; this is a stunningly beautiful portrait of post war Europe, of the damage loss can do to a heart, and of the redeeming power of love that we all have within us. The final sentence is one of, if not the most, powerful and beautiful and wonderful I have ever read, and if you haven’t read Little Boy Lost, you need to get hold of it NOW and read it instantly. It is perfect.

21 comments

  1. Our reviews of Little Boy Lost are very similar, that sense of shock and awe and the pleading with everyone we know to read it. THAT last line! Ah.I read it at the tail-end of Persephone Reading Week so only a few weeks ago but it still resonates. I had such an emotional response to this and after, yes, not being too wowed by The Victorian Chaise-Longue, felt deprived that I hadn't read LLB until that moment. Now I will be reading The Village and To Bed With Grand Music as soon as I have them.I wonder how many favourites Persephone can continue to give me and yet I know that the answer is limitless.

  2. Verity – do not wait!Claire, I know, every time I read a new Persephone and adore it I think another one cannot possibly take its place but then the next one is always just as perfect if not better! I like to think the joy of Persephone books will just never end. I think that perhaps TVCL is not representative of Laski's other novels because where I have read lacklustre reviews of that I have only read breathlessly enthusiastic reviews of her other books…so clearly TVCL wasn't the best of hers to start off with. I am now converted however and I look forward to The Village which is on my TBR pile after I found an old hardback for 50p a few weeks ago!

  3. I am so pleased that you fell in love with Little Boy Lost. Your reaction is the same as mine, but you express it much better. I loved The Village (and my copy is also an old harback, from a 50p bargain box)for very different reasons. I saved TVCL for fear of not having anything new by Maghanita Laski to read, but as Persephone have another to come and the response seems a little mixed I think it may be one of my next Persephone reads.

  4. Rachel, this really will not do! If I'm tearing up at the review how am I expected to get through the book? *sniff*My husband is away all day tomorrow golfing and he wants me to go to an apple festival. I think not. I am going to stay home and read Miss Hargreaves until I'm finished and then start Little Boy Lost. The festival can have me on Sunday!

  5. Hi Rachel, I discovered your blog via Claire's. I haven't read LBL, but have read TVCL and adored it – as a sort of literary horror story, it was wonderfully claustrophobic. I think I'll make LBL my next Persephone purchase given your review and the other comments.

  6. I have this on my Library Loot TBR and have to read it soon as someone else wants it, but will have to read it even sooner after this review! It sounds like its amazing!

  7. I read The Village first and absolutely loved it. I was less thrilled with The Victorian Chaise-Longue. I've been saving Little Boy Lost. You have a treat in store with The Village, and it looks like I have a treat in store with Little Boy Lost.

  8. Oh dear, you are almost making me tear up now, too. I only had the vaguest idea of what this one was about, and it wasn't enough to tempt me to buy it, but after reading this post I'll be adding it to my next order (and it is even a classic, which means Amazon over here should have it!). Lovely review, I love books that make you feel passionate about the story!

  9. I read this book and loved it, but just reading your review makes me want to go pull it off the shelf and curl up with it again. It was so beautifully paced, and that ending sentence has to be one of the best lines ever. I have the same reaction to Persephone books, too. It's a joy to know they're out there finding such wonderful books for us to read.

  10. Oh, I just received this one in the post and have read many wonderful reviews and am looking forward to reading it immensely.

  11. Fleur – thank you so much for giving me this book! I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on TVCL.Annabel – thanks for reading! Do read LBL as soon as you can – I look forward to reading your review!Simon – Get around to it very quickly! You cannot let it go back to the library unread!Rob – I must read The Village quickly – and you must read Little Boy Lost!Danielle – Thank you! I am glad you can feel my passion! I can't wait for your review of this, you are always so eloquent.Makedo- I'm glad you loved this too. LBL is definitely a book I will go back to as a nice emotional read.Samantha – I hope you love it as much as I did – I'll be keeping an eye out for a review from you!JoAnn – Thank you so much for the award!Alana – Do look out for it! You won't be disappointed!

  12. Rachel – I was reading this book late at night shortly after discovering it. I had just started to live on my own and, therefore, there was nobody around to hear my cry (at midnight) at the end of the book, at that last sentence, I was overwhelmed and just burst into tears. I, too, had read the Victorian Chaise Longue and was not sure of this author but oh my goodness am I glad that I read Little Boy Lost. A simply wonderful book. I am choking up just thinking of the wonderful few words on the last page.

  13. Oh Elaine, that was my EXACT reaction! Well, except that my boyfriend was there sleeping and I considered waking him up to tell him about the ending.

  14. Oh Elaine! If I had not have been sitting on a train, I would have burst into tears too!A lot of people don't get on with the Victorian Chaise Longue but love Laski's others so I am definitely going to be reading her other books now.

  15. On the strength of your review I bought and read this gorgeous little novel this weekend and promptly bought another copy as a gift. Such a stunning book. Spare and pointed and as the afterword points out, challenges the reader to contemplate how he or she would have risen to the occasion. There is also an underlying spirit of generosity toward humanity here. Just lovely.

    Reminds me in its urgent immediacy (the fact that it was wriiten in 1949 is important) of Hans Fallada’s novels of pre war Germany. Try Every Man Dies Alone.

    Thanks!

  16. Bit late in the day but i was browsing your blog and read this review to check it out, as I had given this book to my sister for Christmas. I went and got it for myself after reading your review, and was pleased to read it for myself. I think novels about the post war period are full of issues which a few years latrer were swept away. Another favourite of mine is Shirley Hazzard’s the Great Fire. Sarah Waters’ Little Stranger. Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Hare and the Tortoise. Laski was noew to me – so thanks.

  17. I am yet to read the unabridged original. What I read was the abridged version in an old (1950?) Reader’s Digest more than three decades ago, when I was back in India. Needless to say, it moved me to tears back then, and the thought of it (especially that last sentence) still does.

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