Ben In The World by Doris Lessing

A few weeks ago, the first book in this series, The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing, was book of the month at our book group. One of our members had read this sequel to Ben’s story and so a few of us decided to read Ben in the World too. It is a very short book, a novella rather than a novel.

Ben is now grown to legal maturity, and is the central character of this sequel, Ben in the World, which picks up the story at the end of the childhood where the first book ended and takes our primal, misunderstood, maladjusted teenager out into the world, where again he meets mostly with mockery, fear and incomprehension but with just enough kindness and openness to keep him afloat as his adventures take him from London to the South of France and on to South America in his restless quest for community, companionship and peace.

Doris Lessing uses a plain, unadorned prose and the reader has a childlike perspective at the heart of the book. The world in all its malevolence and misapprehenison swirls around at the edge, while, occasionally, a strong character steps forward to try to stake out some values and practise some good behaviour. 

Like The Fifth Child, this is not a cheery book. It’s themes of discrimination, cruelty, poverty and insecurity are sometimes hard to read about. Nevertheless, Ben in the World is worth reading, even if the ending is a bit predictable.

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). Like other women writers from southern African who did not graduate from high school (such as Olive Schreiner and Nadine Gordimer), Lessing made herself into a self-educated intellectual.

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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