I have several bookcases of books I haven’t read yet. There are about a dozen more that I purchased over the past two months. I chose to read the The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing to accomplish two goals: read something that’s been sitting on my shelves forever and to finish a shorter work in order to have a review ready for this week. This is my first time reading a novel from Lessing, and I just couldn’t resist the back cover which promised a chilling horror story. Having read it, I think it is a very good book, but I didn’t completely fall in love with it.
The novel begins in the late 1960’s. Harriet and David Lovatt meet and immediately fall in love. Drawn together by their conservative natures and fevered desires to have a large family, the young couple wastes no time in having children. They continue to have one child after another, and their large house in London is constantly visited by their relatives. Despite criticism they receive from certain members of their family, they are truly happy.
This happiness immediately changes with the birth of their fifth child.
Harriet knows something is wrong during the pregnancy which is much more difficult than the previous four. The baby thrashes around inside the womb, leaving Harriet in constant pain and fear. When he is born, Ben doesn’t look quite human. Described often as a troll or a goblin, he is huge, grotesque in appearance, and abnormally strong. Ben screams, becomes violent, and frightens both his parents and siblings in the household. As he gets older, he matures physically but socially and emotionally is stunted. Ben never learns to speak properly and appears to have no empathy for the feelings of others. These behaviors worsen over time, resulting in the family pet getting killed and also one of the siblings becoming injured.
The family becomes quite divided on what to do about Ben. Although Harriet loathes him, she cannot bring herself to put him in an institution. She is coerced into having him committed, but she then immediately rescues him and brings him home. From that point forward, Harriet feels quite alone David and the other children have no time for her. Their ideal family life is shattered.
The Fifth Child is quite a heart-wrenching story. I was left feeling unsettled throughout most of the book. I have always said that the best horror fiction is reality-based, and this novel is the epitome of that with a family falling apart because of their inability to accept Ben. Lessing manages to capture the fear of all mothers who have dreams of happiness, which fate can tear apart in the blink of an eye.
I also thought this book was a fascinating study into both social collapse as well as psychiatric treatment of the time period. Harriet and David represent the conservative image of family life, a vision that Ben single handedly destroyed. As he grows into adolescence, he becomes friends with other outcasts and turns to a possible life of crime. The scenes inside the institution are the most heartbreaking for me. I work with children that are autistic or have other cognitive and emotional delays so I was feeling a lot of sadness for Ben and the future that might be waiting for him as the world wasn’t able to give him any type of understanding. However, I also sympathized with Harriet who was desperately seeking answers, to have some type of tangible explanation for Ben’s condition. Lessing does well in capturing the guilt and torment of a mother who blames herself for the way her child is. Due to Ben having special needs, Harriet neglects her other children, resulting in their eventual abandonment.
For me, the ending of the book didn’t quite work. Ben’s future is left up in the air, and the novel ends on a very sad note. I really wish that I could know if Ben ends up finding his place in the world or if he is forever an outcast. However, this is a compelling read and a great introduction into the writing of Doris Lessing.