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The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing
This book is one of a new series of novels, plays and stories used for studying literature at GCSE/Key Stage 4 level. The series has been collected to meet the needs of the National Curriculum syllabus. Because it is a school text at the beginning there is an introduction, pre-reading activities, notes and coursework activities. As well as these extras there is a special couple of page written by the author about writing literature
I am afraid I skipped over this section of the book as I hate being told what I am meant to find or read in a book before I have actually read it myself. I am really not sure why theses extras bits are at the front of the book because in my view they should be at the end of the book to read after you have read the story itself so that you have a chance to form your own opinions and feelings about the story and the characters.
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. This book 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.
David and Harriet meet at an office party that neither of them is really enjoying. They are both rather traditional people and don't really fit into the lively busy party scene. They spot each other across the room and once they meet things quickly move on and they marry in a very short time.
They plan on having a large family. David came from a split home and loved living with his mother in her big Oxford home rather than spending time with his wealthy father in his various homes. Harriet came from a stable home and her parents were a happy couple. They both wanted a big happy family and with that in mind they went out and bought a huge house which they could ill afford on both salaries but as Harriet discovered she was pregnant they could certainly not afford. Happily David's wealthy father seems to step in and save them from each financial disaster along the way.
Despite the fact that David and Harriet were seen as a bit odd and different before their marriage, after their marriage they seem to have it all. A fabulous house and quickly they move from one baby through to a happy healthy family with four children. Relatives come for the summer and Christmas and all seems to be rather perfect. Harriet's mother moves in to help her with her young family and David's father steps in from time to time with financial help. All seems perfect until Harriett fall pregnant a fifth time.
Everything seems wrong with this baby. Harriet never enjoyed happy pregnancies but this one was far, far worse. The baby kicked from a very early age and not just little kicks these were painful so that Harriett ended up walking around for houtrs on end and taking tranquilisers to calm the unborn baby .
Once baby Ben arrived it got worse. Nobody would actually say that anything was wrong but relatives stayed away. Harriett 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.
BEYOND THE STORY ITSELF
Aside from the main story Lessing develops three main themes throughout the book. Firstly she forces the reader to think about how society responds to those who do not conform. David and Harriet did not fit the norm when they met, they were considered odd balls by those around them yet were obviously very normal in reality.
Lessing also makes us aware of the dangers of becoming too complacent. David and Harriet had a wonderful happy family but suddenly it all goes badly wrong. This happens to so many of us during our life time. We seem to be sailing along happily then suddenly something major hits us, death of a family member, losing a job, or similar can have major impacts on our lives.
Finally she forces the reader to think about the role of a mother and how deep a mother's love for her child can be. Often families who have a child who has more need of the mother can cause the other siblings to suffer. A mother is human and can only spread herself so far. We often hear of a family that ends up with divorce because of a tragedy as one of the parents fail to cope in the same way as the other with a tragedy.
Although the author doesn't spend long developing the characters we know enough about them to empathise with them, I have to say the other siblings faded for me but that was possibly deliberate as they also faded in Harriet's world too.
I really felt for Harriet as she was pulled from pillar to post emotionally by individual members of the family who all wanted a bit of her time. It was difficult to either like or dislike Ben. He showed no emotion at all unless it affected him so it was hard to empathise with him but again that was probably deliberate on the part of the author.
In fact I could clearly see the problem from all the character's views but there was no solution. I didn't really warm to the different characters. It was more like reading a social work case as each person was affected but there was not one that I wanted to 'help' more than another. It was just a really horrible situation without any solution really.
Harriett attempted to sort the problem by making as much as possible happy and normal for Ben but all that did was lose her the rest of her family. Nothing could be done about Ben;s problem as nobody accepted it was a problem except the family.
The back of the book almost gives the impression that this is a horror story, a bit like 'the Omen' or 'Rosemary's baby' but although in many ways it is exactly that in other ways it is far from those as this is set in reality. Part of the problem lies with society and how it views these 'different' children. Harriet's sister has a Down's bay and she is described as loving and sweet but still a problem that hse needs her mother's help to cope with.
Ben however is different and he is menacing. He doesn't seem to want to be a part of the family. he watches the other and copies what they do but finds speaking hard, he finds it hard to follow a simple story, in fact he finds everything hard to comprehend and sorts his problems out with his physical strength which is an increasing worry.
The family have a HUGE problem. I don't think I would want to have a child in the house who put all the rest of the family member in danger but Harriet had no where to send him as nobody would say what the problem was.
At one stage Ben is sent off by the family 'somewhere' Harriet goes to visit and is shocked as she finds him in an awful drugged state and brings him home. This institution is based on one visited by Lessing in Germany and it is the stuff of horror films. I am not sure I could have left any child or animal in such a place never mind my own child so Harriett was back to having the problem as everyone else including David had washed their hands of Ben.
Interestingly Ben took to a group of young lads who were out of work lay- abouts and society misfits. Did he become attracted to them because he too didn't fit into society? These lads rejected by society and who couldn't get jobs were however very accepting of this strange being who adored them.
This was a very easy book to read as the writing style flowed well. The story was pretty short. I read it one night. Despite this it is the kind of story that haunts you. I have spent much of the day thinking about this family and their turn around in circumstance which turned their happy family upside down.
Looking on Amazon I see there is a sequel to this about Ben as an adult. I think I will read this sometime in the future. I cannot see where the author will take this one. I can't see it being written in Ben's voice as he seemed very withdrawn from all emotion although it has been done before in 'A curious incident of the Dog in the Night time'.
I didn't feel tearful reading this as the author didn't pull the heart strings. This was written in an almost factual way, a bit like a case report. I was left thinking about the family, wondering what will happen to each of them but I didn't shed a tear at all. I don't think I am hard hearted as i often cry when reading books I just think it was the way the story was told and the fact that the characters never really became real for me.
This would make a perfect book for a reading group discussion as there is so much to talk about and so many possibilities to discuss. I found it interesting and it made me very grateful for my own happy healthy children. They might have driven me to a few G&Ts in the past but they still all talk to us and want to spend time with us and are making contributions to our society in different ways.
I just hope that I never have to go through quite such a life changing tragedy with my children and grandchildren. Losing your parents is bad enough but for anything to happen to my children I just don't know how I would cope.
This is story with a lot of food for thought.
Thanks for reading. This review may be posted on other sites under my same user name.
This was a book group choice. The title was sufficiently intriguing and the author well-known - Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007 - so I was looking forward to reading this novella.
-- The Fifth Child --
Harriett and David are two old-fashioned young people who meet at an office party. They quickly decide to marry and look forward to raising a large family with at least six children. They buy a huge property and settle into a life of domestic bliss, producing a new child every year and having extended family stay for weeks at a time. When Harriett falls pregnant for a fifth time, everything changes. The pregnancy is different, difficult, and the resulting child ugly, deficient of normal feeling. This is Ben. What will happen now?
-- My experience --
The premise was an interesting one and made me think of Lionel Shriver's novel 'We Need to Talk about Kevin'. I wondered whether this was a similar exploration of how a child develops without a mother's love, but the tale feels much more complex and it is difficult to reduce the story to such a simple logic (although critics have tried - see below). The description of the pregnancy makes it clear that this is a very different experience for Harriett, to the extent that, considered rationally, her experiences verge on the ludicrous. It is to Lessing's credit that I never failed to believe in her characters or their experiences.
As the story develops, Ben's difference becomes more pronounced, although there is still a question mark over its extent - teachers and doctors refuse to recognise that he is an exceptionally unusual child. I found the storyline so interesting because there is no clear response to the situation. Indeed, Lessing herself stated in an interview with the New York Times that there was "no solution" to the problems posed in the book and that readers often struggled to accept this. It is often said that literature is cathartic, allowing readers to experience a problem and its resolution. I found it quite refreshing and challenging that 'The Fifth Child' resists this concept. As readers, we cannot be sure of who or indeed what Ben is, how he should be treated or what should be done. I am still thinking about the issues posed by the story several weeks after reading it.
This is a short story - only 159 pages - and I found it easy to read, finishing it in a few days. It could easily be read in a matter of hours. There are no chapters so there is nothing to slow down the pace of the story. Lessing writes in a brisk way, allowing the story to unfold swiftly. I liked the style of the writing, although it does prevent readers from developing much sympathy with the adult characters. I found them to be rather un-likeable from the beginning, perhaps because their dream depends upon the financial and physical support of other characters that they have previously looked down upon.
Having the characters distanced from the reader in this way allows the story to be the central focus. In fact, the whole story feels rather like a myth. I have also read 'The Cleft' by Lessing and felt that the style was similar. Lessing seems to tell universal stories rather than specific, localised stories. This is supported by the science-fiction elements of her writing. For instance, there is a strong suggestion in this book that Ben is a 'throwback', some kind of caveman accidentally born in the wrong century. Lessing herself sees the book as a horror story and actually re-wrote it to make the reactions of other characters to Ben more unpleasant - and thereby more realistic. Certainly the discomfort Ben engenders in most of the other characters is pronounced and would perhaps be unaccountable if he were seen as simply an unusual child.
-- Interpreting the story --
I liked this story partly because it seems to defy straightforward interpretation. Critics have stated various interpretations of the story to be true and final. Most of these have problems. For instance, viewing Ben as a symbol of the changing reactions to children with developmental disorders seems to be undercut by the sympathetic portrayal of a Down's Syndrome child. Seeing him as a maternal reject or as a victim of the family ignores what he does and, perhaps most importantly, the implications of the sequel. Lessing has written a follow-up to this story called 'Ben in the World' which would seem to lend weight to some interpretations over others. Regardless, I think the refusal to provide simple solutions to the problems posed by Ben is a real strength of the story.
-- Conclusions --
This is a simple but thought-provoking story which uses aspects of a range of genres to create a disturbing tale which shows "how easily things can vanish" (Lessing - NYT interview). It reads like a fable or myth but one without a simple or correct solution. I found it interesting to read as there is ambiguity surrounding Ben and his treatment. I would recommend it to anyone who likes a story which makes them think. I would not recommend it to people who like fully resolved endings and a story with a strong plot. I am not a fan of science fiction but the elements of it in this are not obtrusive so it did not detract from my enjoyment. I would be interested in reading the sequel, 'Ben in the World'.
This particular edition of the book is nicely presented with clear font and claims to be printed on paper from FSC forests, meaning it is a bit more sustainable than paper from other sources. The £7.99 RRP seems reasonable despite the slimness of the book as I think it would repay re-reading. It will, of course, be available cheaper online.
Harriet and David Lovatt know that they are made for each other the moment their eyes meet - both want a big house, lots of children and family all around them. And for a time, it seems as if they are going to get exactly that. Their first four children are a delight to raise, and relatives are more than happy to spend time at the Lovatts' house. Then Harriet becomes pregnant for the fifth time - an unexpected pregnancy that is far more difficult than any of her former ones. When the baby is born, it is clear that he is very different from the others - large and clumsy, impossible to please and violent towards others. What exactly has Harriet given birth to? And will their family life ever be the same again?
I have read two books by Doris Lessing before, both of which were set in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where the author was brought up, and both of which were a portrait of women and their lives in a very male environment. This book is very different in that it is set in the UK and is more of the horror/thriller genre. As such I really didn't know what to expect from this book. And it was probably just as well, because although I do enjoy a good horror/thriller, this book is not really on a par with anything that I've read before - and not necessarily in a good way.
The characters, as I have grown to expect from Doris Lessing, are well documented, particularly Harriet Lovatt. We learn about her hopes and aspirations and how these are suddenly destroyed with the birth of her fifth child. Forced to make decisions that will devastate the rest of the family, Harriet goes from feeling like a much loved member of the family to someone that everyone turns their back on. The book is very short, yet Lessing manages to convey all this with just a few strokes of the pen - and it really is amazing how much Harriet affected me. She is not particularly likeable - actually she is very santimonious and annoying - but her predicament is such that I really came to admire her.
David Lovatt is less impressive. Faced with difficultly, he is crushed and unable to show much in the way of support for his wife. He doesn't feature all that much in the book, but when he does, he annoyed me - the sign of a good character description I guess. Another character that made a deep impression on me is Harriet's mother, Dorothy. Dorothy spends a lot of time at the Lovatts' home, but not out of her own will - she knows that Harriet cannot cope on her own and so is forced to help her look after the house and the children, but then is resentful that her own life is being overshadowed. Again, she isn't a character that it is easy to like, but she is realistic and convincing and really helps to add to the tense atmosphere throughout the book.
I thought Doris Lessing built up a really good atmosphere throughout the book. It is clear right from the start that something really awful was going to happen, and although it is a long time in coming, there is always the feeling that it could happen any moment. This makes the book a real page-turner; all the more so because there are no chapters and no breaks in between paragraphs, so it really is difficult to find a convenient place to stop. Had the book been any longer, I would have found this irritating, but at around 150 pages, it wasn't really a problem.
The book is well-written, although the language used is very simple and to the point - so much so that at times, I wondered if I was reading a children's book. It was almost as though I was watching the goings-on, but from a distance. Rather than being a disadvantage though, this style of writing was actually very effective, because it all added to the atmosphere and the promise that the Lovatts' easy lifestyle was about to change for the worse. I can imagine though that newcomers to Doris Lessing's work would find the writing style strange and not terribly impressive.
The main disadvantage to the book, in my opinion, is that it doesn't quite deliver what it promises. I was expecting something earth-shattering, or something that explained why Ben, the fifth child, is the way that he is. Instead, the book just petered out and I was left feeling a bit flat. This is perhaps more to do with the way the book is marketed - it is advertised as being 'disturbing' and 'a nightmare' and although it is definitely a dark tale, it is more depressing and sad than anything else. I was expecting something along the lines of Ira Levin's 'Rosemary's Baby' I suppose, but the book is far from being as memorable.
I did quite enjoy this book - it was short, but well-written, and until I reached the end, I found it compelling. But the ending really ruined it for me and so I would only recommend it to people who know not to expect anything monumental from the book. To be honest, I don't think it is the best example of Doris Lessing's work either, and I wouldn't recommend that anyone started with this one. Three stars out of five.
The book is available from play.com for £5.99. Published by HarperCollins, it has 160 pages. ISBN: 9780586089033