The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

DATE FINISHED: August 4th, 2012 

RATED: **** (4.5)

SYNOPSIS:  Harriet and David are instinctively drawn to each other through a mutual yearning to play traditional happy families. They marry almost immediately, stretch their finances to live in an enormous home, and Harriet gives birth to four normal, healthy children amidst a whirl of family gatherings and old-fashioned support. Ben, the fifth child, is different even before he is born, torturing Harriet from within; and then after birth, immediately proves himself insatiable, brutal, ‘other’. Harriet and David become convinced that Ben is not quite human – somehow a throwback from an ancient, primitive race, and untameable. In the face of this indomitable force of nature, their carefully constructed family idyll begins to crumble…

THOUGHTS:  The story of this unearthly cuckoo in the nest, threatens all sanguinity. How can a mother relate to an `alien’ child? How does one balance the overwhelming demands of one presence against all others in one’s life? If Harriet and David’s life before Ben seemed a little too pat, with the extended family (willingly) playing too large a role in sustaining the dream, life after Ben shakes every foundation and forces reassessment of every assumption.

Lessing’s prose is succinct and unobtrusive, telling her story simply and without sensationalism. Whether or not one believes Ben is a `throwback’ – a truly primitive force – or simply a different child (perhaps the product of a distant, unloving family; perhaps autistic, for example) failed by the social and welfare structures of his time, Lessing somehow conveys his vulnerability as well as his impenetrability and brutality.  A dark, unsettling and compelling read.

FOLLOWING ON:  Lessing tells more of Ben’s story in a sequel, Ben in the World.  Another case of undiagnosed possible autism can be found in Jill Dawson’s novel Wild Boy, based on the true story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron.  Also reminded me in some ways of the non-fiction Dibs: In Search of Self by Virginia M. Axline.

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2 responses to “The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

  1. Lainy SMBSLT August 30, 2012 at 1:15 am

    Great review, not sure it would be my kind of read though. I found you via Risi :)

    Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

  2. tanglecrafts September 1, 2012 at 10:25 am

    Thanks for the comment! I would specifically avoid recommending it to anyone who was pregnant or a new mother, but even so, it’s definitely not a book that would appeal to everyone. It’s certainly very interesting, though!

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