In an awful hurry just before Christmas, I bought two books from one of my favourite publishers, Persephone, without really looking at them. This wasn't quite as spontaneous as it may sound, as both were on my Persephone wishlist: Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski, and Saplings by Noel Streatfield. I discovered when I got them home that they share subject matter; both are about the effect of war, specifically WWII, on children.
In Little Boy Lost, a father returns to France just after the war in order to find his young son, whom he met only once when he was a baby. In spare, careful prose, Laski conjures a France brought almost to its knees by the effect of the fighting; Paris and countryside alike are bombed out ruins, the people wary and fragile. Those who collaborated with the Germans are rejected by their villages, left to hold cold, haughty chins high amidst disparaging looks and turned heads.
Like Elizabeth Taylor, Laski creates for us characters that are not wholly likeable, and in that, are wholly human. One wants to beat one's fists against Hilary's chest as the final chapters speed by and one can see the mistake he will make even as he cannot - or perhaps, as he will not, for surely even this broken man understands what he will lose in exchange for fleeting pleasure? And it is here then, that one realises that the lost little boy of the title is not the child who is physically missing, but the man who searches for him; Hilary has lost sight of his own purpose, his own sense of self, and in this respect is perhaps an everyman for a post-war landscape.
The heart of the novel, however, is the child. Jean, who may or may not be Hilary's son, is drawn with pity at his core. He is small and skinny with huge dark eyes; he wants nothing more out of life than to one day go on a train. His reaction to the meagre gift Hilary brings him - the first present he has ever received - is surely one of the most moving scenes in literature. And yet Jean is so much more than just a small boy placed to tug at our heartstrings; he is a lesson in what becomes of displaced and orphaned children during wars. His is not an overly harsh existence, nor even entirely loveless, but it is stripped of nuance, of the care of the individual; in this post-war Europe, children are spare parts, leftovers; they are not the centre of anyone's universe, as all children should be. And when one sees how placing him in the centre changes both his own and Hilary's life, however briefly, one begins to understand quite how much is lacking in lives made hopeless so early.
This is a beautiful book, simple, human, intelligent and crafted with great talent. Laski is overlooked today, but she remains a writer of importance in both subject matter and skill; the very last line of Little Boy Lost is alone proof of this fact.