Little Boy Lost begins at Christmas 1943 when poet Hilary Wainwright receives the news, brought by Frenchman, Pierre Verdier, that his three year old son, John, is lost somewhere in France. Hilary has only seen his son once, just after his birth, as he had to flee France following the German invasion. His wife Lisa, a Polish national, had remained in Paris and become involved in assisting British prisoners to escape but had been captured and killed by the Gestapo twelve months earlier. Before her capture Lisa had entrusted John to Pierre’s wife, Jeanne, but she too had been captured by the Gestapo and had died under torture. Pierre offers to help find the child when the war is over. Still apparently frozen by grief for his wife, Hilary defers the search until he is demobilized, although he could have begun the search sooner and despite several letters from Pierre offering assistance.
Pierre has identified a child in an orphanage 50 miles from Paris whom he believes to be Hiliary’s son, although there is no concrete evidence to support this. The child, Jean, is open and trusting and displays a pathetic delight at the smallest of kindnesses. Hilary fights against his emotional response to the boy and is unwilling to believe that the child is his. He needs to be certain as he is primarily searching for the child for his wife’s sake.
‘It was my child she wanted me to save, our child, the child of our love. I have no duty to save a pitiable orphan who is nothing to do with me.’
Hiliary may be unsure but the reader wants him to claim Jean, yet at the back of the mind is the niggling thought that if he takes him anyway, his own son might remain forever out there in a situation as deprived as little Jean has experienced.
The novel paints a picture of post-war France, from the poverty of the orphanage where, despite the best efforts of the nuns, the children are poorly dressed and have barely enough to eat to the operation of the blackmarket where anything can be bought for a price and Hilary is able to dine on foods unimaginable to the children and those caring for them in the orphanage. As well as the physical wreckage wrought by the war, the ongoing grief and guilt are also examined. The question of what people did during the war, of who collaborated, who made accommodations, has already become a burden – people may no longer speak of who did what, but they do remember.
Laski’s prose is plain and elegant and captures the rhythms of both French and English in various parts of the novel. The story becomes increasingly compelling as it progresses, especially at the end. The Afterword deals with the situation in post-war France and most especially with the circumstances of children displaced by war, a problem which is no less pressing today.
The ending of the novel is breathtaking, not only in terms of what is but what might have been – an ending that stayed with me for days after I finished reading the novel. This, in my opinion, is the best of Marghanita Laski’s novels. Anyone wishing to read more of Laski’s work, should not overlook the short story, ‘The Tower’, (most recently published in The Oxford Book of 20th Century Ghost Stories ed. Michael Cox 1996) where the horror is as much in what remains unsaid.
Another review can be found here.