The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing was a recent book at our village book group. I had never read anything by this author, but recognised her name as a respected author.

The book is very short, a novella, rather than a novel. It tells the story of Harriet and David Lovatt, and their family. As parents of four children, they have created an idyll of domestic bliss in defiance of the social trends of late 1960s England. So much so that I found the first part of the book rather dull.

The reader is told how, around them, crime and unrest surge, the Lovatts are certain that their old-fashioned contentment can protect them from the world outside all this changes at the birth of their fifth baby, Ben. He is gruesome and goblin-like in appearance, insatiably hungry, abnormally strong and violent, Ben has nothing innocent or infant-like about him. As he grows older and more terrifying, Harriet finds she cannot love him, David cannot bring himself to touch him, and their four older children are afraid of him. 

The plot is simple and told chronologically by an omniscient narrator: Harriet and David want to fill their enormous house with a huge family. They have four beautiful blond, blue-eyed, rosy cheeked children in quick succession, in between hosting popular house parties at Christmas, Easter, and the summer holidays. Then Ben is born. This is a horror story exploring what happens when a monstrous child is born to a perfect family. When there is no way for everyone to be happy and safe, who must sacrifice what, and observing how the parents make decisions and choices.

I found The Fifth Child increasingly interesting as the story progressed. I did not accept that everything the reader was told about Ben could have been unnoticed by the doctors Harriet saw and the teachers at his school. That made me increasingly question the accuracy of Harriet’s fears and observations, whilst also feeling bad about not believing her, when she already felt so judged. I didn’t believe Ben is a subhuman “throwback”, changeling, troll, or even an alien as Harriet often says. Although he’s hyperactive and shares some traits with autistic people, his issues are not actually defined.

This is not a book that will suit everybody, but it is interesting and quite different from anything else I have read. It made for good discussion in our book group.

The Author

Both of her parents were British: her father, who had been crippled in World War I, was a clerk in the Imperial Bank of Persia; her mother had been a nurse. In 1925, lured by the promise of getting rich through maize farming, the family moved to the British colony in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). 

In 1937 she moved to Salisbury, where she worked as a telephone operator for a year. At nineteen, she married Frank Wisdom, and later had two children. A few years later, feeling trapped in a persona that she feared would destroy her, she left her family, remaining in Salisbury. Soon she was drawn to the like-minded members of the Left Book Club, a group of Communists “who read everything, and who did not think it remarkable to read.” Gottfried Lessing was a central member of the group; shortly after she joined, they married and had a son.

Val Penny

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