Persephone Reading Weekend: Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski

Persephone Reading Weekend is hosted by Claire and Verity. For those of you who are new to Persephone and wondering what this is all about, they’re a publisher dedicated to printing “mainly neglected fiction and non-fiction by women, for women and about women” and Claire and Verity have organised a weekend of reviews, giveaways and other Persephone-related fun. I’m glad I’m able to participate for the first time, as I hadn’t discovered Persephone Books in time for last year’s event. Since then I’ve read four Persephones – this one, Little Boy Lost, is my fifth. And I’m pleased to say that it has just become my favourite so far.

I was originally planning to read Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson which I received from my Persephone Secret Santa at Christmas, but due to the length of the book I realised I wasn’t going to be able to read it in time to post about it this weekend. Although I’m still hoping to get to Alas, Poor Lady within the next few weeks (and looking forward to it as I’ve heard some good things about it), I decided that my book for the Reading Weekend would have to be the only other unread Persephone I own, Marghanita Laski’s Little Boy Lost.

And now I feel bad that Little Boy Lost was only my second choice. I can’t believe I’ve let this book sit on my shelf unopened for more than six months; if I’d realised I was going to love it this much I would have read it immediately.

Little Boy Lost is the second book I’ve read by Marghanita Laski – the first was The Victorian Chaise-Longue. However, I found the two books entirely different. Although I did enjoy The Victorian Chaise-Longue, this one was far more emotional and a more gripping, compelling read.

It’s Christmas Day, 1943, when Hilary Wainwright first learns that his son has been lost. He had seen baby John only once – a brief glimpse of a little red face with dark hair poking out of a bundle of blankets. Then, while Hilary was away, his wife, Lisa, was killed by the Gestapo in Paris and their little boy disappeared almost without trace. When the war is over, Hilary goes back to France and with the help of his friend, Pierre, he begins to follow a trail which he hopes will lead him to his lost son.

Laski does an excellent job of portraying the conflicting emotions Hilary experiences, torn between longing to be reunited with his son and worrying that if he does find him he might not want him. All through the book I was guessing what might happen – it wasn’t really obvious what the outcome would be and I could think of several different possibilities, some good and some bad.

The descriptions of post-war France are so vivid: the bomb-damaged buildings, the poverty, the food shortages – unless you were rich enough to take advantage of the black market, of course. And I was shocked by the descriptions of the conditions in the orphanages. As well as there not being enough to eat and drink, and a complete lack of any toys or games, it was chilling to think of children with tuberculosis living alongside the healthy ones.

Although I was trying to avoid hearing too much about this book before I read it, I knew it was supposed to become very nerve-wracking and suspenseful towards the end. Well, I can tell you that this is definitely true! There are so many great books that are let down by a weak ending, but this is certainly not one of them. The tension throughout the final few chapters was nearly unbearable, so much so that I was almost afraid to reach the end. And I imagine most readers, like I did, will have tears in their eyes when they reach the very last sentence.

Nicholas Lezard of The Guardian, who is quoted on the back cover, says it best: “If you like a novel that expertly puts you through the wringer, this is the one.”

17 thoughts on “Persephone Reading Weekend: Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski

  1. Claire (Paperback Reader) says:

    “I can’t believe I’ve let this book sit on my shelf unopened for more than six months; if I’d realised I was going to love it this much I would have read it immediately.” I wrote almost the same thing when I finished this and reviewed it during the first Persephone Reading event – it shamed me that I had taken so long to read it! I had been depriving myself.

    Delighted that you enjoyed your Persephone choice this weekend, Helen. You really must read Still Missing, which is another Persephone that puts you through the wringer (you can try to win a copy by entering my difficult – but oh so worth it- competition).

  2. BuriedInPrint says:

    This was one of the contenders for my reading this weekend, but it sounds like I’ll be glad to have saved it for another time. In the right frame of mind, I don’t mind going through the wringer, but not today (though I’ll probably end up saying what you and Claire have and, when I do get to reading it, be smacking myself for having delayed in doing so).

  3. Aarti says:

    Ooh, I’m very intrigued by the ending of this book now! I am glad you read this one- it’s been on my wish list for some time, but I’ve not gotten hold of it. Glad you were inspired to take it down from your shelf and that you enjoyed it so much!

  4. Karenlibrarian says:

    It’s been sitting on my shelf unread too! I think I’ve been avoiding it because I’m afraid it will be too gut-wrenching — after reading Still Missing I didn’t think I’d ever let the kids go anywhere without me, again, EVER. If I can squeeze it I’ll try and read it this weekend; otherwise it will probably be my next Persephone.

  5. Susan in TX says:

    I just finished this one last night, and completely agree with you. I picked up my copy in November and was waiting for the Persephone weekend. What an incredible read! I highly recommend it, and would say to those (like I was) that are afraid the missing child element will be too hard to handle that that isn’t true of this book. It’s definitely a riveting read, so set aside a few hours where you won’t have to put it down. 🙂

  6. ramblingfancy says:

    Great review! I love all of the Laski’s I’ve been able to read, but you’re so right to comment on how emotional and compelling this one is. Like you, I was shocked by the conditions in the French orphanages after the war – probably naively now I think about it. Somehow Laski brings it all so much to life, doesn’t she?

  7. Cristina says:

    Oh this does sound like an explosive book! I have a non-Persephone copy sitting on my shelves (been there for 8 months) and I intended to make it my third Persephone this weekend. I may not get to cover it now though, but I will pick it up soon after all these positive reviews. Thank you!

  8. Charlie says:

    I have to read this simply because I liked VC-L so much, I want to see what else Laski can write well. It’s nice to know that the last sentence is so powerful because although they are often good they don’t particularly deserve a mention.

  9. Sue says:

    My copy finally arrived from the library and it was read in two sessions. I was screaming at Hilary on occasions (in my head) but kept thinking how damaged he must have been (why was never made explicit) or that he was simply a product of the times so was really trying not to judge him. I think the ending will stay with me for ever. Your review was excellent and inspired me to follow her up. Enjoyed VCL too but didn’t become as involved.

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