Newest Review: ... father seems to step in and save them from each financial disaster along the way. Despite the fact that David and Harriet were seen ... more
One too many?
The Fifth Child - Doris May Lessing
Member Name: catsholiday
The Fifth Child - Doris May Lessing
Advantages: A very thought provoking and quite disturbing story
Disadvantages: Not one to read while pregnant!
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.
Summary: A short novel with some very disturbing elements