Well, I’m still heading back to healthiness (though still not eating much – could be a cheap day out tomorrow!) and have managed to finish another Persephone. This is the one which lots of people raved about last year, and which made it to the top of my Persephone Must Read List. Oh, and it’s short. Step forward Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski.
Like Miss Ranskill Comes Home, this novel is from the late-1940s – but while Todd’s novel offers an unusual perspective on the war, Laski turns her eye to the chaos of the post-war world. Hilary – whose wife Lisa was killed by the Gestapo – is visited by another underground activist and told that his (Hilary’s) son is missing. Hilary has only seen his son once, the day after he was born. The rest of the novel follows Hilary to Paris as he tries to track down his son, and work out whether or not the boy he finds (Jean) is indeed his son.
Hilary is fairly taciturn, self-absorbed, and not particularly alert to the feelings of others – but he is someone still a very sympathetic character; even for someone like me who doesn’t have children and can’t tap into the desperation of his search. It doesn’t hurt, on the sympathy front, that Hilary is described as:
a fast reader and dreaded nothing more than to be stranded without print. He would read anything sooner than nothing, fragments of sporting news torn up in a lavatory, a motor journal on a hotel table, an out-of-date evening paper picked up in a bus. He would covetously eye the books held by strangers in trains, forcing them into conversation until he could offer his own read book in exchange for something new. But if, by ill-luck, he was reduced to reading nothing but haphazard chance finds that offered his mind only the bare fact of being print, he would become dreary, unhappy, uneasy, like a gourmet who suffers from indigestion after eating bad food.
That description could make me forgive Hilary a lot – even, almost, when he starts criticising Winnie-the-Pooh as unreadable. I can only assume Laski hadn’t read it of late, otherwise my opinion of her has gone down a lot….
Although the plot is fairly simple, its handling is beautifully subtle, especially as the novel progresses. Some of the earlier scenes are closer to thriller than ‘literary fiction’, for want of a better word – in that they seem to be about plot rather than character. But once Hilary has found Jean, their parallel emotional journeys are drawn brilliantly well. Hilary is reluctant to become attached to a child who might not be his; Jean is unused to any special attention, but is wary of accepting it with its unpredictability. It’s all done quite beautifully.
With all this subtlety, it is such a shame that Laski crams in a ridiculous last-minute character and accompanying quandary. I shan’t reveal too much, but it comes down to Hilary having to decide between lust and love, but the lust aspect is insultingly unconvincing and the character representing it seems the afterthought to an afterthought.
Putting this aside (and the novel would have been so much better without it) Little Boy Lost is an exceptional novel, and I’m very grateful to all those who waved flags for it last year. Now, should I go and add another tick to the poll?