Ben in the World - Doris Lessing
A while ago I found 'The Fifth Child' by Doris Lessing on my daughter's shelf and read it. I found that intriguing and was fascinated to find there was a follow up book called 'Ben in the World' following what happens to Ben as an adult. I thought that I would keep an eye out and maybe buy it from Amazon but luckily the other week I spotted this on the Bookcrossing shelf in Derby so grabbed it quickly pleased at getting it free.
A BIT ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I know many people don't want to read about the author but I always like to know a bit about authors and if it isn't in the book I go off and find this for myself as I find it interesting. If this offends you then skip this bit.
Doris Lessing was born in Iran in 1919 and lived in Zimbabwe from the age of five. She came to England after her divorce as an adult in 1949.
Many of her books are based on her own experiences although they are not autobiographical. Ben's story was inspired by a letter from a mother in a magazine Lessing read and also partly from a remark of a biologist and archaeologist Loren Eiseley about seeing a girl on a beach who had a Neanderthal look. This snippet of information was from an article in the 'Independent 'in 1989.
THE FIFTH CHILD
I would personally recommend reading this book before 'Ben in the World' as you will have some more understanding about Ben and his growing up.
When Ben was a child nobody would actually say that anything was wrong but relatives stayed away. His mother could do nothing except feed this baby and watch him to prevent him from injuring himself or others. Things get worse and Harriett is at her wits end, the doctors and professionals say he appears normal just very strong and hyper active.
Throughout the story Ben is never diagnosed with anything specific so we are left wondering what is wrong, why does he behave like he does? Apparently the lack of diagnosis is deliberate so that we are left wondering.
BEN IN THE WORLD
Firstly this is not an uplifting novel at all. It very much questions society's attitude towards those who are a bit different. Why do people stare, move away and try and avoid sitting next to those who look a bit 'odd' in our eyes.
Throughout this book we see things through Ben's eyes whereas in the first book it was more through the rest of the family's eyes. In this book Ben has lost contact with his family, even his mother who is the only person who seems to care for him at all.
Very few people are kind to Ben and those who are seem to be a bit outside society themselves. Others mock him or try and exploit his innocence and naivety. He starts off with a gang of deviants and eventually even they move away from him. The person who is genuinely the nicest to him is an elderly lady who lives in a small flat with her cat but that doesn't last for various reasons which I won't go into as it would be a spoiler. He has quite a nice time with a prostitute for a while and finally ends up being taken to Europe and finally Brazil by someone who thinks he will use him in a film.
Throughout the story the way Ben is portrayed as a larger than normal but not very bright and extremely confused young man. I picture him a bit Neanderthal as he is very hairy and speaks very little and makes rather odd noises, gets very excited by things going wrong and loses his rag in quite violet ways.
Doris Lessing has created some believable side characters in the book and while you do feel so sorry for Ben you can also sympathize with those who are a little scared of him. I sympathized less with those who took advantage of him but did wonder if I could have coped with him living in the same house as me and really admire the old lady who befriended him.
I sort of think of Ben as a big floppy dog in his emotions. He can't seem to read people's expressions and voice intonation and is very literal in his interpretations.
Ben goes through some horrendous treatment and at one stage he ends up in a cage like those used for doing animal experiments in laboratories and reading this makes me even more keen to avoid buying products tested on animals. I really can't understand how any human being can constantly inflict pain on another animal daily and go home and sleep at night.
I think this book is aimed at young adults although there is some sex in the book which makes it only suitable for older students to read at school. It is a perfect book to read to spark off discussions about humanity, prejudice and experimenting on animals and to take it to the next stage they could also think about whether there may be creatures like Bigfoot or the Yeti or are they a figment of people's over active imagination?
This has to be one of the saddest novels I have read. Ben is just so innocent and confused and there just seems to be no place for him in modern society. He is different and so some want to avoid him, some want to exploit him and others want to put wires on him, lock him in a cage and do research on him. All these things happen either to animals or different people who are social misfits today. That is quite a sobering thought considering we think we are civilized.
The book is an easy read in that Lessing writes well and doesn't over complicate her writing so it would be easily readable by teens. The story does grip you and you keep willing for something good to happen for Ben. I read the book in a couple of nights in bed as it is not a long book and the type face in mine was a good size. My version is a hardback with only about 170 pages so it is an easy read but a far from warm and cosy read. I like the way the author writes, she has an easy style that would appeal to most people and is accessible to even those not into reading longer books.
If you have read 'The Fifth Child' then I would say if it intrigued you then give this a read but don't expect a light uplifting read.
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