Friday, 7 May 2010

Little Boy Lost

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anything sooner than nothing, fragments of sporting news torn up in a lavatory, a motor journal on a hotel table, an out-of-date evening paper picked up in a bus.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?

16 comments:

  1. I was really impressed with this novel when I read it. I think I may become rather a big fan of Laski the more I read of her and fortunately I still have two (at least) of her works to go which is pleasing.

    I thought this was a book where the last few lines blew you away and made the rest of the book work even more than you'd initially realised, I might not be making sense now.

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  2. I somehow found this book in a library one day a couple years back, a first edition and checked it out. I was blown away! What luck!

    Although I wanted to shake Hilary to death at times, I agree with Savidge where the last page made everything perfect. I even think I cried myself to sleep the night I finished it.

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  3. I got so angry with Hilary and his stupidity! But I feel that the emotion built by Laski in these actions made the ending that much more powerful. I want to slap him all over again!

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  4. Hilary was incredibly frustrating and the lust factor reductive but I am still reeling from that emotional punch in the gut.

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  5. I agree with Savidge...the last lines were what made it an exceptional novel not to mention Laski's writing which is brilliant. I find this to be the most accessible Persephone to non-Persephone readers. My husband read and loved it too.

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  6. The description of Hilary sounds a lot like my eldest daughter. :) You've got my interest up on this one -- as usual!

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  7. I thought the nun who ran the orphanage was an interesting and realistic character. And I forgave Laski the silly romance because of the brilliant last few lines of the book. All and all, a great Persephone.

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  8. I find myself rather intimidated by Marghanita Laski's books. I'm almost certain it has more to do with her name than with the books themselves, but there you go. Having now read a number of positive reviews for Little Boy Lost, I think it's time to overcome this prejudice and finally read her for myself!

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  9. I had read about another Laski novel so thanks for highlighting about this one which is new to me.

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  10. Simon, I found Hilary to be a despicable but believable character. Because of his utter selfishness and self-absorbtion, I found the lusty entanglement to be jarring (because I didn't want him to hurt the boy) but plausible. I hope to read more of Laski's books in the future.

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  11. I'd definitely like to read this one and 'more like a thriller....' in parts has actually sold it to me even more :)

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  12. Hi, I gave you an award! http://carolinebookbinder.blogspot.com/2010/05/awards-lovely-acknowledgement.html

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  13. This books seems to have divided a lot of people, especially regarding Hilary's character. I haven't read any Laski yet (and she's also one of Sarah Waters' favourite authors) but this sounds exciting.

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  14. Yes, Hilary is annoying for many reasons - but what a lot he learns on this journey. I felt he was closing in on himself, and gradually the petals were being opened for him again.

    I think many of the peripheral characters were beautifully painted. The nun in charge of the orphangage, and the teacher and his mother. I wanted to cheer at the end.

    I have also read "The Village", which is another fine bit of writing.

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  15. I have only been getting around the Persephone Week posts now, but we both read this during the week. I also didn't like the appearance of "that" character, but then I was totally impressed by the quality of Laski's writing. Therefore, despite not wholly loving every aspect of the story, I fell in love with her language and voice so very much.

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  16. P.S. We quoted the same passage, too. Lol.

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