15 August 2010
Book Review: The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing
Caveat lector: Perhaps not the book for women of child bearing age...(oh, and spoilers galore)
Such a different book from my first (and until now only) Doris Lessing (The Summer Before the Dark). The Fifth Child is a fast moving story that starts off rather conventionally introducing David and Harriet's happy and rather mad rush into love, discovery, and warm hospitality but then turns slowly into something akin to a horror story. Not a blood and guts kind of horror story which seems so far from our personal frame of reference, but one which is infinitely scarier. The kind of horror story you can imagine coming true. The kind that might even remind you of someone you know.
Before I get myself into trouble explaining that last sentence or two let me first lay out the plot (spoilers and all) so I don't have to try and be clever. Harriet and David want a big family. Four kids seem to be the minimum, six might be nice, eight would be even better. In pursuit of their desires they buy a large house that they set to filling both with offspring but also with their extended family and friends. Always the place to go for the holidays, their house is always alive and almost always a happy, loving place. That is until Harriet becomes pregnant with her fifth child. As her pregnancy takes an ominous turn Harriet becomes harder and harder to be around. By the time she gives birth to Ben, her 11-pound fifth child, Harriet is convinced the baby is more beast than human. From there things go from bad to worse. Ben develops into an unusually strong, uncontrollable, anti-social child. As a result the other kids are frightened, the Harriet and David's marriage is strained and the big family gatherings become less and less appealing to their extended family and friends.
Although published in 1988, the action begins in the 1960s and so Ben's condition is never explained in a way that we would expect today. Indeed that is part of the problem, Harriet never manages to find the support she needs from either her family or the medical establishment. And it wreaks havoc on her life, the lives of her children and her relationship with her husband. The horror that I mentioned earlier is not about Ben's differences but about the way society can and can't deal with those differences and the toll it takes on those responsible. And how not everyone can rise to the challenge of caring for special needs children.
Although the story is disturbing, Lessing is an amazing writer and it is no wonder she won the Nobel Prize for Literature. She works about 20 years into 133 pages and does so in a way that never makes it feel rushed. I have two other Lessing novels on their way to me somewhere in the USPS and I can't wait to see how they stack up to the two I have already read.
Have you added Lessing to your Nobel TBR?