Being a lover of books and beautiful things, my teenage daughter usually discovers a Persephone paperback in the contents of her Christmas stocking. Last year, it was Little Boy Lost, by Marghanita Laski. She read it almost immediately and then, appraising it and me with shrewd enthusiasm, declared: ‘This is a very good book and you’ll love it.’ She was right on both counts.
Little Boy Lost is the story of an English poet who, having lost his Parisian wife and infant son in the Second World War, hears that the child may still be alive and returns to France afterwards in search of proof. An astute psychological study as well as a tale of secrets and searches, it was first published in 1949 and, thanks to Persephone, reprinted in 2002; but how such an accomplished and gripping novel managed to achieve ‘neglected’ status (the qualification for publication by Persephone) in the intervening fifty-three years is a mystery.
Laski, born into a Jewish intellectual family in 1915 (her father was a barrister and judge, her uncle the political theorist Harold Laski), read English at Oxford and worked as a journalist, critic, novelist and broadcaster all her life. Her style mixes traditional storytelling techniques – a mysterious disappearance, a romance tragically concluded, an enigmatic night-time visitor and a superbly atmospheric setting – with a view of the affair almost entirely from the perspective of the protagonist, Hilary Wainwright. His state of mind, his mental debates, his private reactions to the people and situations he encounters, are part of the narrative. You might imagine that this would result in many slow, reflective passages but in Laski’s taut economical prose it creates an immediacy that drives the story along at a rattling pace.
Hilary is not a particularly likeable character. Having heard that Lisa, his wife of only a few years, has been murdered by the Gestapo for her work with an escape organization, h
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