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Rediscovering A 'Lost' Postwar Literary Gem

Marghanita Laski first published <em>Little Boy Lost</em> in 1949.
Marghanita Laski first published Little Boy Lost in 1949.

"It was on Christmas Day, 1943, that Hilary Wainwright learnt that his little son was lost." These words open the late British novelist Marghanita Laski's Little Boy Lost, a devastating and fast-paced tale of one man's attempt to find his child in war-torn France.

Five years earlier, Hilary fled from Paris just steps ahead of the German troops, leaving behind his wife, Lisa, and day-old son. Soon after, Lisa, a volunteer in the French Resistance, died in German custody. No one is sure what happened to the newborn. After peace is declared, Hilary returns to see if a similar-seeming orphan might be his son.

Little Boy Lost, first published in 1949, has the potential to be a soap opera dressed up in period garb. All the ingredients are there: the dead wife, the man incapable of love, the ravaged French countryside, the neglected orphan. Yet no one gets off so easily, certainly not the reader. A sentimental shine would have distanced the action; instead, we feel so close to the characters we can hear them breathing.

Hilary is wonderfully complex and a dead-on depiction of a certain type of cold intellectual. A poet raised by a family that "fearfully despise[s] him," he cloaks his pain with indignation, answering those who show him kindness with distance. His poems are mostly about emotions he does not allow himself to feel. Laski's writing is so deft, we empathize with Hilary while wanting to reach into the book and smack him about the head.

This is the third Laski novel — after The Village (1952) and The Victorian Chaise-lounge (1953) — that Persephone Books has had to save from out-of-print obscurity. This lapse in availability is a shame, as Laski belongs in the company of her contemporaries Graham Greene and Elizabeth Bowen. Little Boy Lost is gem that should, and now can, be sought out and taken home.

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Jessa Crispin