Doris Lessing – The Fifth Child

Posted on | July 26, 2010 | 8 Comments

doris_lessing, the_fifth_childBy virtue of Doris Lessing being a Nobel Laureate, her books have always intimidated me. The size of the one book I’ve heard about the most, The Golden Notebook, hasn’t really helped. However, when I stumbled upon The Fifth Child at the library, I felt as though I had to try reading at least one of her books. I’ve read Nobel Prize winners before, and more oft’ than not, I’ve enjoyed the reading. Also, the blurb at the back of the book intrigued me. It reminded me of Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. No, this isn’t a book about a high school shooting. Instead, it’s a book about a child being born into a perfectly happy family, who is violent and uncontrollable, with a vicious streak in him from the time he was in his mother’s womb.

Set in the 1960s, this book revolves around two social “oddballs,” David and Harriet, who meet at an office party, and almost immediately decide to get married, and have loads of children (“six, eight, ten”). They buy a massive house in the suburbs which they can just about afford, and Harriet gets pregnant, on the first viewing of the house! In the six years that follow, the couple have four children, and depend on their family for support. Yet, they’re happy, which is the important thing.

Despite the family’s constant advice, the couple are adamant to have more kids, and so, the fifth child is born. Even before the birth, Ben seems to be a violent child. According to Harriet:

sometimes she believed hooves were cutting her tender inside flesh, sometimes claws.

And when Ben is finally born, he resembles a goblin or a troll more than a human – Harriet’s thoughts again! Nothing is safe from the little Frankenstein. Not the pets, not the other children, not the house they live in. His parents hate him, his siblings hate him. And so, the idyllic life that Harriet and David have built with such conviction starts falling apart.

Harriet was wondering why she was always treated like a criminal. Ever since Ben was born it’s been like this, she thought. Now it seemed to her the truth, that everyone had silently condemned her. I have suffered a misfortune, she told herself; I haven’t committed a crime.

This book raises more questions than it answers. In a family, what is the concept of consequentialism : the good of the entire family, or the good of every child? In a warm loving environment, how is a child like Ben born? And more importantly – why? Is happiness merely transient? Or, did David and Harriet tempt fate with their constant utopian life? Oh, and of course, it takes us back to the age old question: nurture or nature?

I found The Fifth Child to be a fascinating gripping read, and was amazed by how much Lessing had packed in in such a short novel (160 pages). The language wasn’t complicated, and the plot moved fast. Even before the first chapter was over, David and Harriet had met for the first time, and decided on their marriage!

There’s a sequel to The Fifth Child called Ben, In The World. Have you read it? If yes, is it worth reading?

Have you read any other books with a “monster” child, that you’d recommend? It does seem to be a crop up a fair bit in the world of literature. I’m just hoping it’s not that common in reality.


8 Responses to “Doris Lessing – The Fifth Child”

  1. Jackie (Farm Lane Books)
    July 26th, 2010 @ 9:31 am

    I loved The Fifth Child! I thought it went a bit too far in places, but I’ve since heard that it was meant to be over the top and more horror film that real life. I have heard that Ben in the World isn’t as good, but will probably get round to reading it at some point.

    The only other monster child book that I can recommend is We Need to Talk About Kevin – Scary stuff :-)

  2. Sarah
    July 26th, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

    Oh! I am intrigued. The We Need to Talk About Kevin connection has caught my attention. I enjoyed that book, but wished it had been more conclusive. I am still looking for my closure, but probably am not going to find it in The Fifth Child, from the sound of things.

    But I have wanted to read Doris Lessing. Saw a copy of The Golden Notebook in a second-hand bookshop recently; totally horrifed by the size of it!

  3. Thomas at My Porch
    July 26th, 2010 @ 6:14 pm

    I just bought this book yesterday. The only Lessing I have read so far was The Summer Before the Dark, which I really liked.

  4. mee
    July 28th, 2010 @ 12:44 am

    I try to read more Nobel prize winners too, and didn’t know which Doris Lessing I wanted to read. None of her books appealed to me. But this one sounds interesting, and it’s thin as well (which is always a plus :).

  5. Nancy
    July 28th, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

    I read The Fifth Child some years ago and found it horrifying, which must have been the intended effect. On reflection, I think Doris Lessing is dramatizing that even in a good and well conducted life, events are beyond our control.

    Like others here, I always intended to read The Golden Notebook. You can find my reactions at my blog. Search for Lessing.

  6. Natalie @ Coffee and a Book Chick
    July 29th, 2010 @ 12:21 am

    What an interesting story — and also freaky! I would like to take a look at this, so thanks for the post!

  7. Becky (Page Turners)
    July 29th, 2010 @ 9:25 am

    Sounds really good, and very like we need to talk about Kevin, which I read a couple of months ago. Does the writing compare? I was so disturbed by We need to talk about Kevin I’m not sure I’m up to reading this yet, but I will keep my eye out for it definitely

  8. anothercookiecrumbles
    July 29th, 2010 @ 10:32 pm

    @ Jackie : We Need To Talk About Kevin was seriously scary! I might have to try Ben, in the World.

    @ Sarah : The Golden Notebook looks scary. Might have to read a couple of more Lessings, before I approach that… although you seem to have a thing for chunksters! :)

    @ Thomas At My Porch : Thanks for the tip on The Summer Before The Dark. Hope you enjoy this one!

    @ mee : Haha, I know what you mean about the appeal of the thin book! Nobel Prize winners… they’re a tough bunch to crack.

    @ Nancy : You’re right. It’s scary and horrifying! And yeah, so many things happen that are beyond our control, it’s unbelievable.

    @ Natalie : Hope you enjoy it. :)

    @ Becky (Page Turners) : The writing, I think, is superior to Kevin. Keep an eye out for it – if you liked Kevin, think you’ll like this as well.

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