From the political comedy of Tory Heaven, to a very different kind of novel indeed….
Review by Margaret B:
Hilary Wainwright, emotionally repressed English poet and intellectual, returns after the second world war to a blasted and impoverished France in order to find his young son who had gone missing during the war. He is helped by Pierre who had known Hilary’s Polish wife through the French Resistance before she was killed by the Gestapo. Pierre has found a boy in an orphanage that might be Hilary’s son.
Hilary meets the little boy, Jean, and gets to know him to find out if he is indeed his son. But this proves an almost impossible task as Hilary only saw his son briefly on the day he was born and there seem to be no clues for Hilary to reach a conclusion one way or the other. As the relationship between Hilary and little Jean develops, Hilary has to confront his problems with commitment, tenderness, guilt and duty.
I loved this book. It was almost impossible to put down. It was beautifully written and can be read on many levels.
On the basic level it is a powerful quest of a man trying to find his lost child. And on that level it is a great page turner. But more than that is a powerful story of a repressed Englishman frightened of coming to terms with love and tenderness. And on another level it is a harrowing portrait of a war-torn France. Who is the little boy lost – little Jean, Hilary or even France?
The descriptions of France immediately after the second world war create a tragic backdrop to the story:
“then (he) found a wilderness of desolation. Save for a roofless church higher for the contrast of emptiness, there was not a building standing for half a mile in every direction. Red bricks and grey bricks, roof tiles and stucco, reinforced concrete sprouting thick rusty wires, all lay huddled in destruction”. (Page 82)
Hilary ‘s response to the state of his beloved France contrasts with his repressed feelings for other people who he either despises or pushes away when they get to close. He finds it easier to sympathise with France than with the orphaned Jean.
“He was stabbed with an impulse of deep pity. This town had always been ugly. Its life could never have been one that he himself would have wanted to share. Yet, where these ruins now stood, the people who were part of the nation he regarded as the most civilised in the world had led full satisfactory lives, eating with informed pleasure, arguing with informed logic, strolling up and down in the warm summer evenings, sitting at cafes and watching the promenade pass by.” (page 83)
The book also describes the extensive black market, bribery and corruption going on which horrifies Hilary while he hypocritically benefits from it. In every way, France and the French way of life that Hilary loves seems lost.
But more than anything it is Hilary that is lost. We learn of the difficult relationship with his cold and unemotional mother, of the death of his beloved young wife while they are separated by war and of how he has cut himself off from emotions to cope with his grief.
The key question of the novel is whether Hilary will find the evidence he needs to prove Jean is his son, and the love Jean needs from a father or if Hilary can never be sure, will he still adopt the little boy whom he grows fond of, anyway? But then he loses his nerve and the reader who has been charmed by the developing relationship between the man and the small boy, is terrified that Hilary will abandon the boy and return to his repressed intellectual life without love.
“If I had let myself succumb to tenderness, he argued, it would have been simple. I would have been torn to pieces by this child. I would have taken him and comforted him and never let him go. But I dared not give him tenderness… You see, pleaded Hilary, I am incapable of giving. I dare not give so I am running away. I’m finished with ordeals. I am fleeing to the anaesthesia of immediate comfort and absolute obligation.” (page 210)
The ending, like the beginning is truly dramatic and the reader is on the edge of their seat until the last line.
A fabulous book which doesn’t date. This is not “middlebrow fiction” but a beautifully written, complex and powerful book on may levels.