Ben, in the World by Doris Lessing

DATE FINISHED: September 4th, 2012 

RATED: *** (3.5)

SYNOPSIS:  At 18 years old (looking twice his age) Ben has left home, and is seeking his own place in the world. He has always been ‘different’, and although he has learned (for the most part) to contain his instinctive impulses, he is becoming increasingly desperate to find more people like himself, somewhere he can belong in a world he simply doesn’t understand. Although he meets several people who accept him as he is, for various reasons their refuge is short-lived and instead his life is manipulated by people he knows he cannot trust yet still cannot evade. After being used to carry drugs to France, Ben finds himself in Brazil where he appears to be a highly sought prize by scientists at a local research centre, but also ever closer to the promise of more ‘people like him’…

THOUGHTS:  Ben in the world is a different Ben to the one introduced in The Fifth Child. He has grown up, learned to control his primal urges, and scrape by in a world which is designed to take advantage of him. Lessing entirely turns the tables on one’s expectations of what Ben might have become, and his vulnerability is emphasised rather than the horror of his ‘otherness’. Although Lessing certainly retains and expands on her neanderthal throwback theory, I still thought there was sufficient ambiguity in the telling to see Ben as a (very misunderstood) person with some form of learning difficulties, and representative of all those people who fall through the cracks of welfare systems designed to help.

I’m glad that I read this book, as I was fascinated and intrigued by The Fifth Child and really wanted to know more about Ben. His perspective of the world was entirely other than I expected but this makes for more interesting reading. After a while, though, I began to tire of Ben’s passivity, and the way dramatic things ‘just happened’ to him. The world Ben inhabited didn’t feel very much like the ‘real’ world. Although there was always a fable-ish quality to The Fifth Child, this seemed more suited to the context of Harriet & David’s crumbling idyll than to the wider scope of Ben’s experience. It is probably intended as an allegory for broader problems in the world at large, but I felt less willing to buy into it than I did with the earlier story. Ultimately, this was a sad, slightly poignant but less powerful story than that which preceded it.

FOLLOWING ON:  Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes springs to mind.


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