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