09 December 2010

Book Review: Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski

    
This fantastic photo from a Flickr page belonging
 to burningoutofcontgrol
Even though I very much enjoyed Little Boy Lost, I think I am going to be in the minority on this one. Many bloggers have loved this novel and commented on the fine quality of Marghanita Laski’s writing. I agree with them in their enthusiasm for Little Boy Lost. It was one of those books that I didn’t want to put down once I had started. But I felt like there were too many tidy progressions in the plot that were so obviously just meant to move things along. It wasn't so bad that it really bothered me, but it did keep me from thinking that Laski was a great writer.

To provide a succinct, spoiler-free plot description: Hilary, an Englishman, still bereft over the death of his Polish wife at the hands of the Nazis, goes to France after World War II to find his young son. When he encounters a boy who might be his child, emotional confusion results. Is the child really his? You’ll have to read the book.

It is in fact Hilary’s emotional confusion that provides the real meat of this book. When he meets Jean, the boy who may or may not be his child, Hilary is smacked in the face with his own emotional ambivalence. So much so that I wondered whether Hilary had a heart at all. Part of me just put it down to the fact that he was English. (I know, I know...before I get hate mail from my English friends, you must forgive me my deep seated and probably unjust notion that the English are capable of an emotional detachment that can be breathtaking. No doubt this stereotype is the equivalent of those English depictions of Americans being loud, crass, slack-jawed, idiots.) But as I thought a little more about it I realized that Hilary was also a prisoner of his time and gender. What else could explain the fact that despite having a big ol' farm and plenty of money, he could only imagine taking the child if he could pawn the him off on his parents or by marrying his f*** buddy, gal pal Joyce (see there is that crass American coming through). I shouldn't really fault 1940s Hilary for not living up to what we might expect today. But then I think of the husband in Dorothy Canfield Fisher's much earlier book The Homemaker or even Martin in Richmal Crompton's Family Roundabout and think "Hilary, you fool, break out of that box!" I mean really, why go searching for a son that you only intend to farm him out to someone else to take care of.

I also found myself screaming (silently) at Hilary "For god sake man give the kid a sandwich--he can't live on Raspberry soda thingies alone." And having been brought up Catholic I couldn't help but be annoyed by the Mother Superior being overly, but not surprisingly given her position, concerned about Hilary not being a Catholic. Right, better to be a Catholic orphan than the son of a non-Catholic.

I didn't mind, as many of you did, the introduction of the slutty number toward the end of the book. Perhaps clumsily inserted into the story sure, but it does add a psycho-sexual dimension that really heightens the emotional stakes. Laski does mention Hilary's sex life earllier in the book when he is hanging out with Pierre, but nothing that prepares us for the possibility that Hilary is going to let his penis make the decision for him.

And how is that for a review of Little Boy Lost? I managed to offend an entire nation, dropped and f-bomb, and used the word "penis".

Job well done, Thomas. Job well done.

(But seriously, read the book. You'll like it.)
  
The endpaper from my lovely Persephone edition.

13 comments:

  1. Well this post certainly got me interested! now to track it down.

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  2. Oh the joy of discovering a vintage book reviewer unafraid to speak his mind!
    Yey for offending the nation!

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  3. Well, I think that it near-impossible to review Little Boy Lost without dropping the f-bomb (I did it too although I was quoting another review).

    You are not alone: Verity was similarly un-wowed. The selling-point for me was the emotional impact (and you know where that comes in). Hillary is a frustrating character and, yes, emotionally inept & self-gratifying.

    I was disappointed by The Victorian Chaise-Longue, unimpressed by Hillary & yet emotionally shattered by Little Boy Lost and overwhelmed by Laski's writing talent inTo Bed With Grand Music. What impresses me is her diversity in writing.

    If you want something similar to Little Boy Lost but with the emotional connection sustained throughout then may I warmly recommend Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon? My favourite read of the year, hands down, and possibly now the wearer of the crown for best loved Persephone.

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  4. Correction: Still Missing ties with The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery for best read (and potentially most loved Persephone if NB reissues it).

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  5. Hi there, have been popping by your blog a few times and just signed up as a follower - really like your blog!

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  6. I really loved this book, and loved Laski's writing, but I have to agree with all the points that you make regarding Hilary. Don't you think that was the authors point though? He was SOOOO frustrating and I seriously wanted to beat him up (I'm a non-fighter).

    And so funny what you say about the Catholics...AND true! Well done, Thomas, well done! :)

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  7. '...the introduction of the slutty number...'

    Sorry you didn't like the book as much as I did BUT, you did make me burst out laughing!

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  8. I'm sorry you didn't like this one but don't give up on Laski. I was just debating recently which of the 2 Laski's I read this year is going to make it to my final top ten, Little Boy Lost or To Bed With Grand Music and I'm going for the latter so I hope you'll enjoy that one. I think you purchased it on your recent London visit.

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  9. I think you are looking at this with modern eyes, and are unfair to Hilary in one respect. In the days before freezers, microwaves, washing machines etc, a single working man could not bring up a child without help. In the 1950s a relative of mine was boarded out with aunts when his mother went into hospital, as his father could not cope alone.

    Apart from that, I think the ending of the novel was somewhat contrived, but overall it gave a very good impression of France immediately after WW2.

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  10. Job well done, indeed! :) I have had this book for some time but still have not read. Not sure why. Have read the views of others, and there is so frequently some qualifiers contained in the recommendations that I always paused. Some day.

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  11. First blog post of the day to make me laugh. Wonderful review.

    I had trouble liking Hilary, as well. At one point I had to just stick my head in and go on, knowing we were supposed to realize that Hilary was the little boy lost. But I'm so glad I'm not the only person to note that children can not live on disgusting sugary drinks!

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  12. I have never in my life heard of this book, but it seems to be quite exciting based on your review and the comments on it. I think I will have to check it out (plus I love that you posted the endpaper, made me very giddy).

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  13. Mystica: This one may be hard to find.

    Alison: I am much more inclined to speak my mind in person. On the blog I try to temper my hyperbole.

    Claire: I know I bought The Victorian Chaise-Longue but I don't remember if I got To Bed. And of course I found that original edition of her novel The Village.

    Willa: So glad you stopped by. I love hearing what people think, so keep commenting.

    Daniel: Yes, I think Laski was trying to frustrate us with Hilary.

    Darlene: I am glad you found it amusing. So many people have reviewed this one I knew I couldn't be boring about it.

    Mrs. B: I am definitely not giving up on Laski.

    Michelle Ann: I totally agree with you, I was definitely using my 2010 perspective on this one.

    Frances: Whatever its faults it is a quick enjoyable read. You could do it in an afternoon.

    Make do: I always like to make people laugh. As a kid (and adult) I am always hungry so I couldn't help but think Jean needed something to eat.

    Ash: The title was totally new to me as well until I found those Persephone bloggers out there.

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