Fiction – paperback; Flamingo; 160 pages; 2001.
Doris Lessing is one of those authors you know you ought to read but never do. A case in point: I’ve had both The Golden Notebook and The Good Terrorist in my possession for more than three years and never once cracked them open. The sheer size of the books and the weight of the subjects contained within, combined with Lessing’s awesome literary reputation, have made me doubt my ability to understand and enjoy her work. Easier, then, to leave well alone.
That was until I read John Self’s review of The Fifth Child followed in due course by another review of the same book by Isabel from Books and Other Stuff. Maybe it was time to take the plunge? A slim book — just 160 pages — seemed the perfect introduction to her work.
And so this is how I came to read my first Doris Lessing last week.
The Fifth Child is billed as a horror story but it’s not from the Stephen King school of horror — it’s slightly more subtle but oodles more menacing because of it.
It’s about two people — David and Harriet — who meet at an office party in the 1960s and get married shortly after. Lessing describes them as “freaks and oddballs”, not least because they have old-fashioned views about sex at a time when the sexual revolution was in full swing. But also because in each other they saw what they were looking for:
Someone conservative, old-fashioned, not to say obsolescent; timid, hard to please: this is what other people called them, but there was no end to the unaffectionate adjectives they earned. They defended a stubbornly held view of themselves, which was that they were ordinary and in the right of it, should not be criticised for emotional fastidiousness, abstemiousness, just because these were unfashionable qualities.
With their minds set on living in a big house within commuting distance of London, they purchase a “three-storeyed house, with an attic, full of rooms, corridors, landings… Full of space for children in fact”. And then waste no time filling it with offspring — four children in ready succession — even though they can barely pay the mortgage.
Fortunately, David has a rich father who helps with the bills, while Harriet’s mother, Dorothy, is able to move in on a semi-permanent basis to help with the childcare. This enables the pair to create a welcoming, cosy home visited by a steady stream of relatives. Christmas and Easter become big family events that stretch into week-long parties. It seems an idyllic kind of life on the surface, but underneath there are sores that are beginning to fester: David has to work longer and longer hours in the city to pay for his children’s upkeep; Dorothy finds herself being taken for granted and brands the pair “selfish and irresponsible”; and Harriet becomes more and more exhausted with each pregnancy.
It is only when Harriet falls pregnant for the fifth time that things take a turn for the worse. The unborn baby is a “wrestler”, causing Harriet so much pain and discomfort she starts taking sedatives on the sly.
The drugs did not seem to be affecting her much: she was willing them to leave her alone and to reach the foetus — this creature with whom she was locked in a struggle to survive. And for those hours it was quiet, or if it showed signs of coming awake, and fighting her, she took another dose.
When she eventually gives birth to 11-pound baby Ben she notices that he doesn’t look quite right. He had a “heavy-shouldered hunched look” and a strange hairline. “He’s like a troll, or a goblin or something,” she tells David.
This feeling of having produced a non-human baby continues when Ben continually tears at Harriet’s breast, roars and bellows to the point of turning white with rage, and stares at her with cold malevolent eyes.
To say anything more would ruin the plot of the book, but essentially Ben’s mental development stalls, which has consequences for the entire family. Much of the story hinges on Harriet’s relationship to her child and raises that age-old dilemma of whether it is nature or nurture that shapes who we become.
If you are thinking that The Fifth Child sounds like a disturbing read, you’d be right. But it is also a memorable, thought-provoking one. The brevity of this book does not make it less interesting or less controversial than a more page-heavy novel, because within this slim volume there are so many issues worth debating: does class structure affect our family lives? To what extent should a mother take responsiblity for her child’s misbehaviour? Is it responsible to have so many children when you must rely on help to raise them?
Personally, I found the narrative immediately gripping, although the fast pace left me breathless at times. Everything seems to move so quickly, and Lessing is brilliant at hurrying things along with a minimal of detail or explanation — which is a necessity if you are to cover one couple’s life from courtship to raising teenage children in the space of 160 pages. I thought it was a rather effortless read and it has now given me enough courage to delve into Lessing’s rather extensive back catalogue, the first of which is likely to be the sequel to this book, Ben in the World, which looks at how Ben copes with life as a strange, inhuman adult. Fascinating.