Marghanita Laski: Little Boy Lost for #PersephoneReadathon

I found out rather late that this weekend would be a mini-readathon of Persephone books, but I have a few unread ones on my shelf, so couldn’t resist joining in. Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski is reasonably short, and I had enjoyed my other foray into Laski’s work The Victorian Chaise-Longue, so I had a nice lie-in on Saturday (which hasn’t happened in ages) and devoured almost half of it, to be followed by more of the same on Sunday morning.

It is a very simple story of the search for a missing child: Hilary Wainwright had to leave his wife and child behind in France during the war. His wife died and his two-year old son disappeared, so he is now trying to retrace him. Pierre, a former resistance fighter who knew his wife, helps piece together the probable escape route for the child and they trace him (or a boy who corresponds closely to their reconstructed story) to an orphanage in the north of France. Hilary goes there to meet the boy, and decide if he is his son and therefore worthy of being rescued.

This book was written soon after the end of the Second World War and it’s a candid, uncomfortable portrait of a world that has been reduced to rubble both literally and metaphorically. The contrast between the relatively shielded world of England and the devastation of most of continental Europe is stark. The nephews and nieces pouting under the Christmas tree because their presents were not exactly what they expected are the counterpoint of the little boy Jean and his pathetic little collection of ‘treasures’: a pine cone, a marble with all its colour rubbed away and a headless swan.

Laski is extremely good at observing a certain class of Englishman and their romanticised notions of France. They suffer to see France in ruins because of what they have lost, as much as for the sake of the inhabitants.

Yet where those ruins now stood, the people who were part of the nation he regarded as the most civilised in the world had led full satisfactory lives, eating with informed pleasure, arguing with informed logic, strolling up and down in the warm summer evenings, sitting at cafes and watching the promenade pass by… It seemed to Hilary that bomb damage in a French town was a greater tragedy than elsewhere because here the way of life destroyed was in complete antithesis to all that bombs were trying to achieve.

Good though she is at depicting the self-centredness of this type of Englishman abroad, Laski is also unsparing in her depiction of a country that has had to suffer the humiliation of conquest, where people have had to make choices about collaborating with their invaders or resisting. She raises the question: ‘What would you have done under the circumstances?’ Given that Hilary cannot resist the lure of the black market at his hotel in France in order to get better dinners and coffee, even though he knows it is morally wrong and depriving the poorer people of food, I suspect the answer is: ‘Chosen the easy route.’

The receptionist who so politely gave me my fiche to fill in – had he performed the same service for Germans, bowing without a trace of hate on his face, without hate even in his heart? Is it even possible that it is I, not the German, whom he hates?

He burst out to Pierre as soon as the porter had put down the bag and closed the door, ‘Don’t you wonder, with every stranger you meet, what he did under the Occupation?’

‘Oh yes,’ said Pierre promptly, ‘but automatically now and without caring about the answer. I’m tired with “collaborationist” as a term of abuse; we each did under the Germans what we were capable of doing; what that was, was settled long before they arrived.’

The orphan boy Jean is so appealing that my maternal instincts were instantly aroused. I would have wrapped him up in something warm without a second thought and taken him home with me. But Hilary is careful and cautious and wants to make sure not only that this is indeed his son, but that he is still capable of loving someone and of being loved. In actual fact, he is far more of the lost boy of the title than the thin little waif Jean… but dearie me, is it hard to empathise with him! I could barely resist the impulse to say: you are a grown-up, you haven’t gone through half of the hardships this child has had to endure, just get over yourself and show some compassion!

I cannot recommend this book highly enough: it has both heart and a very analytical mind. One of the best Persephones I’ve read yet, a window into the post-war world that should give those hankering after the ‘glory days’ pause for thought.

25 thoughts on “Marghanita Laski: Little Boy Lost for #PersephoneReadathon”

    1. And I think the author intended for us to feel this frustration – it’s not just a new generation of women finding him hard to swallow. The Mother Superior at the orphanage nearly tells him that to his face.

  1. This sounds like a gut-level book, Marina Sofia. Yet, it also sounds as though Laski doesn’t go for the maudlin or melodramatic. To me, that takes skill, especially when it comes to depicting this time and place.I’m glad you found it so well worth the read.

    1. I usually let a little time pass before I write a review, but I wanted to write about this book while it was still percolating in my system. Gut-level indeed!

    1. Aaaargh! Wrong author. I shouldn’t type these things early in the morning when I have one eye on the cricket.

      The Sun is My Undoing is of course by Marguerite Steen.

      I shall now go crawl back under my rock.

        1. Oh! I’m always amazed when there’s an author you don’t know. You seem to have read everybody!

          I read Sun as a teenager, I think, and don’t remember a huge amount about except that the slave-trade stuff was pretty grim, as you’d expect, but that the story transcended it — as well it should, given that the novel’s over 1000 pages long. Having come across a copy of the novel left inside one of the walls by the previous owners of this house (don’t ask), I’ve been interested to give the book another whirl to see what I think about it half a century later.

          It was a massive bestseller in its day.

    1. I could also have quoted that rather lovely passage about the European intellectual, holding certain recognisable views… I created that wonderful bubble of friends for myself, but alas, it is a bubble rather than the real world, as those living in the 1930s soon found out.

  2. Great review, Marina. You had me with that ‘What would you have done under the circumstances?’, something we should all ask ourselves before dimissing collaborators out of hand, and I couldn’t agree with your final observation more.

  3. Wonderful post, Marina. I’ve not read this Laski for fear my maternal instincts would struggle, but I imagine I would be rather judging Hilary like you – what a twit. Sounds like it’s a useful reminder of the effects of War, too, which we would do well to bear in mind…. 😦

  4. This sounds excellent. Goodness, yes, hankering after the glory days . . . I don’t read romance but I’m particularly averse to those set either during WWII or right after, practically glorifying it. Shudder.

  5. So glad you enjoyed this one. I read it quite a number of years ago and loved it. Hilary is very hard to like, and like you I wanted to take that poor little boy home with me. A very memorable novel.

  6. I’m thrilled to hear that you enjoyed it so much and had such a relaxing readathon experience! It’s high on my list of favorite Persephone books as well. As you say, it’s such a simple story but so full of heart and psychological depth. Lovely review!

  7. As you know, I have a copy of this on my reading pile, so I’ve just cut straight to the end of this piece to see your closing comments. The combination of emotional and analytical depth sounds tremendous. One to get to sooner rather than later…

  8. This is heavy. I can identify with having compassion for an orphaned child and wanting to take him in. On the collaborator theme, I never hesitated to have an opinion on this. Part of my family heritage is Jewish, and since the Vichy government rounded up Jewish people and turned them in to the Nazis, I have never thought any decent person would collaborate. Then I read about people in the French resistance and how some mothers coouldn’t get food for their children if they didn’t collaborate. That presents a real moral dilemma I hadn’t thought about before. But I would consider a collaborator as one who was betraying those being oppressed by the Nazis.

    1. Yes, it can be a tough decision. But there are levels and levels of collaboration – and what is interesting about this book is that it is set after the end of the war, and it shows that a lot of people are still extremely self-interested, even when it’s not about survival.

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