Monday, 25 July 2016

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing


The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing
Published in 1988

Where to buy this book:
Buy the book from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Buy the paperback from Speedyhen
Buy the paperback from The Book Depository
Buy the paperback from Waterstones

I registered this book at Bookcrossing

How I got this book:
Swapped for at a campsite book exchange

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The novella is billed as horror but I didn't find it fitted into what I would expect from that genre as, although the eponymous child is described as not human, the book is more an examination of social expectations and how we treat people who are different to ourselves.

Harriet and David meet during an office party in the swinging sixties. Both are considered 'old fashioned' by their friends and family. Neither wants to take advantage of the new freedoms of the era and both were effectively sidelined until they met each other. We see their brief courtship and the purchase of a ridiculously large house after their swift marriage. Harriet is soon pregnant with the first of the large family they both desire and, as the years go by and their brood increases, Harriet and David's house become the place to be. Family and friends descend at Christmas, Easter and the summer holidays filling the house with happiness. Instead of being mocked for being uptight and straight laced, the couple are now envied for their welcome and (assisted) generosity.

All is perfect until Harriet's more than usually difficult fifth pregnancy and the birth of Ben, a strange stocky child who physically develops faster than his age should allow, but mentally seems remote and unable to understand basic social concepts. The catalyst for visitors cutting short their stays or making excuses to be elsewhere, Harriet feels blamed for his existence and Ben's menacing presence upsets the other children. After violent acts, David and his parents arrange for Ben to be sent away, leaving Harriet apparently the only one experiencing guilt at his absence.

Lessing has written a compelling novella which I found difficult to put down. It does seem rather dated now although I can't quite put my finger on why, but asks deep questions about how difficult children are treated. Ben is presented as less (or perhaps more) than human, but does this mean he should be excluded? Does his right to a normal family upbringing override the potential safety of his siblings in the same environment? How much freedom should children be allowed in order for them to be happy? These questions are just as relevant today as in the 1980s when The Fifth Child was written and I don't think the answers are any easier. We know what we think we should do and feel, but if this was your family, what decision would you take?


Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Doris Lessing / Horror / Books from England

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