The Fifth Child – Doris Lessing

Whenever I’ve mentioned to people that my book group is reading The Fifth Child (1988) by Doris Lessing, they have shuddered and told me that I’d better make sure I don’t read it late at night or when I’m on my own, etc. etc.  Apparently it’s notoriously scary.  Well, I found it chilling in places, but ultimately not the horror book it is marketed as.  But it is altogether more interesting than that…

Harriet and David Lovatt are unconventional in their conventionality.  While all their 1960s companions are taking drugs, going to wild parties, and refusing to settle down, all they want is marriage, a big home, and a big family.  This is precisely what they achieve – luckily David’s father is very rich (lucky both for them and for Doris Lessing, who is able to use this a lot to get out of narrative holes), and he offers to pay the mortgage on an enormous house.  Harriet and David promptly get onto filling it, and have four children in the space of very few years, and not that many pages.

I think Lessing rather shot herself in the foot with her title, so far as sustaining interest for the first section of the novel is concerned, because we know what’s coming.  It’s the fifth child which is going to be the important one.

From the first months of her pregnancy, Harriet feels dislike and fear of her unborn child. When he is born, Ben is instantly violent – grinding his gums together cruelly (it seems to Harriet) when he is breastfeeding.  As he grows older, it seems that he has killed a cat; he is bigger and stronger than he ought to be for his age; he cannot communicate in the way their other children did.  Harriet’s dislike grows to a sort of hatred, albeit one tempered with a maternal instinct she cannot quash.

The Fifth Child is an interesting mixture of the gothic horror and domestic realism.  Aspects reminded me of horror film tropes (not that I’ve seen many at all), but still more aspects reminded me of the melancholy-portrait-of-marriage novels Nina Bawden and Margaret Drabble have written.

It made for an interesting combination – but perhaps not an entirely successful one.  Part of the reader’s mind wants to find a logical explanation of some kind (does Ben have severe Autism?  Is Harriet experiencing post-natal depression?) and another part looks towards a fictive horror explanation (is Ben a demon?  A troll, or goblin?)  The influences of two genres can come together in a sophisticated and nuanced manner, but the central crux of the novel can’t really straddle both.  So Lessing picks one – I won’t say which – and this tips the balance of the narrative.  Leaving everything from the other side of the scale a bit out in the cold…

And what of Lessing’s writing style?  I really liked it.  Some people at book group thought it was too basic – the word ‘patronising’ was used – but I’m rather a fan of simple prose.  This might even have been deceptively simple – if it was, I was deceived(!)

This is my second Lessing novel, after Memoirs of a Survivor years and years ago, and I can’t say that I feel I have a strong handle on what she does.  Nor am I hugely keen to read any more, actually, despite thinking The Fifth Child was good.  But, having said that, I would welcome any burning suggestions if you think there is something by our Doris which I should really read…

Others who got Stuck in this Book:


“Although the story is disturbing, Lessing is an amazing writer and it is no wonder she won the Nobel Prize for Literature.” – Thomas, My Porch


“I found the narrative immediately gripping although the fast pace left me breathless at times.” – Kim, Reading Matters


“The book raises many important issues, including whether ‘bad’ children are born that way.” – Jackie, Farm Lane Books

16 thoughts on “The Fifth Child – Doris Lessing

  • February 13, 2014 at 7:53 pm
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    I had a copy of this knocking about somewhere once, but I don't know if it's still there. I haven't read enough Lessing to really make any definite judgements, but the two I *have* read, The Golden Notebook and The Grass is Singing were both excellent in different ways. Golden is very complex, and Grass very moving and evocative. I have heard the Martha Quest books recommended so I may try to track them down.

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    • February 14, 2014 at 2:25 pm
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      My mother warned me off The Golden Notebook many years ago, but she also warned me off Ivy Compton-Burnett at the same time and she's now one of my favourite authors, so maybe I should give TGN a whirl!

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  • February 13, 2014 at 8:27 pm
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    I'd really recommend The Grass Is Singing, after finishing it I thought Lessing was a genius. I'd like to read another of her books, so thanks for your review as I'm not sure now The Fifth Child is for me (still recovering from Lionel Shriver's We Need To Talk About Kevin, read several years ago!). Might try The Golden Notebook next – thanks Karen!

    By the way, I couldn't get to this review via twitter, link didn't seem to work – for me anyway.

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    • February 14, 2014 at 2:26 pm
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      Thanks Claire, I will keep an eye out for that one! Hopefully it'll help me realise whether I admire Lessing or enjoy Lessing – which don't always overlap, of course!

      Can't find problem with Twitter link, but thanks for mentioning…

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  • February 13, 2014 at 8:44 pm
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    The novel sounds very interesting. I have never read any Doris Lessing – I think I'm scared :) Someone forced a copy of The Golden notebook upon me a few years ago – it remains in my house unread. I think I feel that if one day I read Doris Lessing then I will need to tackle The Golden Notebook – and life might just be too short. Tell me I'm wrong?

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    • February 14, 2014 at 2:27 pm
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      Ha! I'm intrigued by the idea of them forcing it upon you… There are some recommendations for TGN and some anti here, so…!

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  • February 13, 2014 at 9:11 pm
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    Thanks for the links, that Thomas at My Porch sure writes a nice concise review. Too bad he doesn't write more of them.

    Ali, I think life may be too short for The Golden Notebook. I've read three Lessings that I quite liked and then I've read TGN. It's big, it's perhaps needlessly dense and complex, and it's political fervor is a bit dated.

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    • February 14, 2014 at 2:35 pm
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      He's quite a star, isn't he? I must say I am very much enjoying his new blog, I'd recommend it if you haven't seen it. ;)

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  • February 14, 2014 at 8:20 am
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    I still don't understand how I feel about Doris Lessing, even after seven of her books. I love and struggle with her in equal measure. My recommendation would definitely be for her two autobiographies, Under My Skin and Walking in the Shade. Both are incredible and powerful, and also terrifying insights into a mind that is very different from the average. I think you would really like them. Also I recommend her early short stories, collected in This Was the Old Chief's Country, especially the ones set in Africa. When she writes about the bush she writes with a passion strangely absent elsewhere.

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    • February 14, 2014 at 2:36 pm
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      How funny! I can't decide if undecided after seven books is the sign of a brilliantly versatile writer, or simply one who doesn't know their own voice… but her autobiographies sound like a great way to get to know her better as a writer. Thank you for your insightful comment.

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  • February 14, 2014 at 11:58 am
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    I'm surprised that you liked this as I thought you'd find it too odd/dark. It is beginning to look as though your reading taste is more similar to mine than I thought!

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    • February 14, 2014 at 2:37 pm
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      Maybe so! I do like my fair share of odd and dark – so long as it's not macabre. That's my line in the sand :)

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  • February 17, 2014 at 12:32 pm
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    Perhaps you don't like it because you don't yet have any children. I'm one to whom it gave nightmares. And surely there's a political agenda, too, with the nice middle-class family almost destroyed by the kid who won't play by the rules.

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    • February 26, 2014 at 8:44 pm
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      But I *did* like it!
      And yes, perhaps you're right about the political agenda. A lot of people at bookgroup hated the heroine for being smug, but I thought she was quite ordinary and understandable.

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