Author: Marghanita Laski
Release Date: October 1, 2008
Publisher: Persephone Books
Genre: Classic Fiction; Literary Fiction
Rating: 5 out of 5
Summary: Hilary Wainwright, an English soldier, returns to a blasted and impoverished France during World War Two in order to trace a child lost five years before. But is this small, quiet boy in a grim orphanage really his son? And what if he is not? In this exquisitely crafted novel, we follow Hilary’s struggle to love in the midst of a devastating war.
Facing him was a thin little boy in a black sateen overall. Its sleeves were too short and from them dangled red swollen hands too big for the frail wrists. Hilary looked from these painful hands to the little boy’s long thin grubby legs, to the crude coarse socks falling over shabby black boots that were surely several sizes too large. It’s a foreign child, he thought numbly . . .
My thoughts: Little Boy Lost at first seems as if it's going to be a sweet, charming story. On one level, it is. But, ultimately, this book goes much deeper. I discovered a beautifully written and poignant story that becomes an inspiring tale of love, loss and the risking of one's own self-interest to honor another. Little Boy Lost is about an accomplished but lonely man who suddenly finds himself with the opportunity to completely change the life he believed was his destiny. But to do so he must take a risk that will make him vulnerable and exposed. We are privy to the struggle he experiences while trying to choose whether he prefers life as he is accustomed or, to open up to love and excitement.
Hilary Wainwright is in some ways the little boy lost in Marghanita Laski's novel. He is a complex, flawed main character. Though he is intelligent and well-mannered, he has also been damaged emotionally by a strained and difficult relationship with his mother. In fact, he still pines for her love and acceptance. This has made him insecure and defensive and quick to assume he's being criticized when anyone disagrees with him.
He was married to a woman he loved completely. Lisa was killed by the Gestapo before they could settle into an enjoyable life together, but she did have their son whom Hilary hasn't seen since his birth. Believing him dead, Hilary hasn't thought about him in years because the pain of both losses is too great to bear. He is afraid to let down his guard and be vulnerable for fear of being hurt again. Hilary is a very human, three-dimensional character who has experienced much pain and angst over the years. This leads us to have very complicated feelings towards Hilary. However, Ms. Laski makes it difficult for us to continue to sympathize with him once he finds the little boy, Jean, who may be his son. Our hearts melt especially when Jean proudly displays to Hilary the broken trinkets in his pocket he calls his toys. Our understanding of Hilary falters at his reluctance to rescue Jean from the orphanage. We understand his fear of being hurt but, at the same time, despise him for it. He considers that it's easier to be emotionless and alone. Through it all, we can't help but hope he makes the right choice.
The story is set in France, in an unnamed town 50 miles outside Paris which, like much of France, has been left bleak and grim by the war. Ms. Laski’s prose paints a vivid picture of the bleakness. Few buildings remain in tact. Many lay in ruin, while others are crumbling. An air of desolation permeates. Things look dismal. The atmosphere in France mirrors how Hilary feels though he hides it. Hilary has very fond memories of France, particularly Paris. Although he is well aware of the destruction wrought by the war, he is still shocked by the conditions he finds in France in general and Paris in particular. The rampant corruption that was so much a part of the war continues as Hilary discovers that a decent meal and a hotel room will cost dearly. People don't trust each other, particularly outsiders. Costs are high, food is scarce. All in all, Hilary feels unwelcome in his favorite place. This has an effect of hardening his heart, making him feel colder and less receptive to meeting the child Culture and civility don't seem to exist. Hilary, who is very well-mannered, feels superior to the people around him, generally but he discovers that there are some people who share his mindset. Still, the desolation Hilary feels around him influences his conscious causing him to wrestle over whether he really wants to find his son. It's as if as a means of protection, he is girding himself against finding that the little boy belongs to him. The story builds in emotional intensity at this point until it becomes almost too much for us to bear. Imagine how Hilary feels!
Little Boy Lost is difficult to read in one sitting because of the powerfully emotional intensity of the story. The prose is beautiful and simple unless description improves the story and then it is wonderfully vivid and picturesque. This story is a reminder of the intense destruction and devastation wrought by war on people and places as well as the lasting impact it has on the people involved. But it is also a story of the hope that exists in all of us for a better, more open and brighter future. Marghanita Laski has written a rich and evocative novel about the courage it takes to love completely and the peace that exists in knowing yourself completely and fully.
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The Book Whisperer
I read my personal copy of Little Boy Lost for this review.