Little Boy Lost is the tale of an Englishman’s search for his 5-year-old-son in post-WW2 France, by the excellently-named but almost-forgotten English journalist and novelist Marghanita Laski, who died 30 years ago this week. At its core is the gripping mystery of what happened to poet and intellectual Hilary Wainwright’s son after his Resistance wife disappeared within the murky machinations of the Occupation regime, and how he will be able to positively identify any child as his own with only a hazy memory of a once-met wrinkly newborn to guide him.
We join him as he follows a tip-off from one of his wife’s Resistance comrades that a child residing in a provincial French orphanage may be his son, by posing as a friend of the washer woman who originally looked after this boy in Paris. But there is much more to Little Boy Lost than a desire to know how a man identifies a child as his own before the days of Jeremy Kyle’s all-important DNA test. (‘His name’s Hilary, he’s looking for his lost son, he’s on the Jeremy Kyle show ladies and gentlemen. Oh and he’s not a bird, that’s just a posh boy name…’)
Firstly there is the well-painted backdrop of a post-war, post-Occupation France. Hilary’s shock at the destruction of his beloved Paris and the exorbitant prices of everyday goods portrays the physical and economic ruins well. But deeper set are the emotional ruins, where Resistance and Collaborationist citizens seek to live side by side:
‘Don’t you wonder, with every stranger you meet, what he did under the Occupation?’
‘…We each did under the Germans what we were capable of doing; what that was, was settled long before they arrived.’
Then there is the fantastic character development of Hilary: his complicated relationship with a tyrannical mother; the grief which makes him protectively numb to feeling and question whether he has the emotional capacity to love his son rather than to merely value him as a symbol of the love he shared with his wife; and the complex feelings he has towards a wife whose affection he now realizes he was sharing with this lost boy. His dalliance with a femme-fatale black marketeer, when he desperately craves the comfort of a woman, nicely places Hilary above the holier than thou brigade (and makes for a very tense ending…but no spoilers here, friends). He is imperfect, and therefore perfectly believable.
And, finally, there is the boy. Oh, the little boy, little ‘Jean’, who has never seen a train before his evening walks with Hilary because ‘we always go the other way’; whose ‘long thin grubby legs’ get so tired on those walks because he is underfed, despite the nuns’ best efforts; who gathers a ‘pitiful heap’ of ‘a pine cone, a stone marble…a used American stamp, and a tiny little celluloid swan with its head broken off and a dirty piece of rag tied around its neck for a bandage’ in the effort to make his ‘anonymous and identical’ bed in the ‘poorest, saddest’ 40-bed dormitory his own; whose hands are ‘icily, inhumanly cold’ because there is nobody to buy him gloves, and whose reaction to a gift of red gloves from Hilary almost broke me; and who, above all, can only conclude that he endures this bleak situation because his parents do not love him enough to rescue him from it:
‘Do my father and mother love me?’ he demanded.
‘Why, of course,’ said Hilary in distress.
‘Then why,’ said the little boy trembling, ‘ don’t they come and take me away?’
Laski’s observation of the abandoned child is so perfectly controlled that it is just the right side of utterly heartbreaking to not be overdone. Reading this requires a strong heart, and almost 70 years on from its original publication (Persephone reissued it in 2001) it reminds us of the suffering of the children who were orphaned by WW2 (a year before the 1949 publication of Little Boy Lost, 20,000 children were still hoping to be traced by distant relatives), and of those orphaned by present day conflicts (it is estimated that a million children have been orphaned in the current Syrian conflict alone). Yes, they need food, shelter and clothes. Sometimes, though, perhaps they also just want someone to buy them a gift of red gloves and take them on a fun walk to see the trains…