Little Boy Lost
When I was very much younger, my grandfather would take me on long walks. Here, in the shaded fresh air amongst the trees, upon the cool, green grass, the sprightly old man would entertain me with stories from India and I would be absolutely spell-bound.
My grandfather had an art for story-telling – an elegant, a noble art which I have not often come across in my adult years. However much the great authors achieved, it was difficult to see their talent in the same light as my humble grandfather’s. Yet the work of Marghanita Laski does not compare unfavourably with the spoken magic of my grandfather. It does not fall into the inferior pool of literary talent which I have described. Neither does Little Boy Lost simply match the narrative skill of my grandfather’s orations. The novel, in fact, exceeds his fictional powers, renewing not just the pleasure and satisfaction that I have found in the British novel, but also my faith in this art-form.
Much of the excellence of the novel lies in its timeless emotional immediacy. Published in 1949, it is about a widower’s return to France in order to trace the son that the war has lost for him. This widower, Hilary Wainwright – a rather bitter poet and intellectual – finds a likely candidate in an orphanage run by Catholic nuns: the impoverished Jean. This Jean is a most lovable child. It is impossible not to take him into one’s heart.
However, for Hilary, who has been ‘cuckolded by death’, paternal instincts and trust are things that are difficult to muster. Hilary’s response to the boy is defensive. The novel follows the tortuous ordeal whereby Hilary must break down the walls of memory and pain about himself in order to find love again, to reject his own tragic fate in such a tragic age and to recapture his capacity for happiness in the present.
Hilary has to decide if he can accept the boy as his own and feel again, or whether he must retreat into a cynical and meretricious numbness.
The subtleties, the flows of this decision and this tale are engrossing, but these are not the greatest of the novel’s perfections. Laski inscribes a matchless evocation of post-war France through the pure simplicity of her prose and literally rivets the reader with her control of emotion and her gift of writing. She discharges great suspense as to the final decision that Hilary will take and when one finishes the novel, there is genuine feeling.
This is a work of quality. It is, in fact, one of those books that when you start reading it, you simply can’t put it down. It is mesmerizing and intriguing from the beginning to the end.
It is also a work which has the power to enrich life. As the celebrated novelist Elizabeth Bowen wrote in her review of the novel, “to miss reading Little Boy Lost would be to by-pass a very searching and revealing, human experience”. This is simply a book that you must read.