Original date of publication: 1949
My edition: 2010 (Persephone)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Persephone Secret Santa, December 2011
Little Boy Lost is set during and just after WWII. Hilary Wainwright is an English writer who lost his wife during the Holocaust—and his son, John, is also lost but in a different way. Hilary receives a tip that his son may be living in an orphanage in France, and he goes there to investigate.
It’s a bleak novel—the theme of which is emotional expression. Hilary’s constant struggle is whether to repress emotion, or to let it out. There’s so much emotional fodder here—the death of his wife, the loss of his son—but he doesn’t allow himself to actually express what he’s feeling. This suppression of emotion is what makes this book so powerful, all the more so because this is a novel of self-discovery, too. It’s only when Hilary manages to “find” himself that he opens himself up. Then there are the larger questions that Hilary finds himself asking: is the boy in the orphanage his? And if so, should he take on the care of him? What does Hilary really want, anyways? A neat, albeit dirty, twist happens towards the end of the novel that throws a wrench in his plans—unexpectedly, but maybe for the better.
Apparently, the idea for the book comes from something that really happened—during the English Civil War, the young heir to a family that supported the Royalist cause was spirited away and taken to a French monastery to be educated. I always find the inspiration for a book fascinating; it’s interesting to see where a writer’s imagination can go. So I was fascinated by Marghanita Laski’s gritty, bleak modernization of the story. I’m not sure that I liked Hilary all that much or the young women he takes up with, but Laski’s depiction of a postwar France in which society has been shattered is chilling. It’s also a subtle acknowledgement of the corrupt choices that many people were forced to make during the war in order to survive. Very well done.
This is Persephone no. 28