Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

As it happens, I’ve only read two novels by Doris Lessing – The Grass is Singing a few years ago, and The Fifth Child a few months ago. I didn’t write about The Grass is Singing after I read it, and I realize now what a mistake this was because I’ve let some of the book’s power fade from my memory. I have held onto a series of distinct visuals and sense memories from this book: the front porch of the house, the heat created from the tin roof, something about a yellow dress, and this image of a stick-thin woman, not more than a shadow, lurking about her home. What I wish I could remember better is Lessing’s writing style and how it worked to create this atmosphere throughout the novel.

I’m interested in this—and the only solution is to re-read—because I was struck with the efficiency of her writing in The Fifth Child and I’d like to compare. I say efficiency because while the prose isn’t overly spare, there is nothing lavish or wasteful about it either. And she manages to tell a difficult and provocative story in about 150 pages.

The premise of The Fifth Child is simple enough – a young English couple buy a big rambling old house and spend a few years filling it up with more children than they can really afford; despite constant nagging financial concerns they create a happy and enviable family life. Until, of course, they get pregnant with their fifth child, a boy, who is somehow abnormal. Not in any easily understandable or diagnosable way, however. He is simply other—somehow ferocious, superhuman and violent. The mother, Harriet, begins to think of him as a kind of goblin.

At first the family copes with his differences as best they can, but things begin to fall apart and a series of very difficult, very painful decisions must be made. It’s an extraordinary book, I feel, because it manages to discuss a number of difficult social and emotional questions without leaving the strict confines of a simple, albeit disturbing, story. What is to be done about Ben? What are Harriet and David’s responsibilities to this child? How do they manage those responsibilities without shirking the responsibilities toward their other children? But also, and this is where the book has left its mark on me as a reader, how does a parent deal with the reality of not loving, of even fearing, their own child? What a frightening possibility.

The following passage encapsulates the dilemma Lessing has given her characters:

One early morning, something took Harriet quickly out of her bed into the baby’s room, and there she saw Ben balanced on the window-sill. It was high – heaven only knew how he got up there! The window was open. In a moment he would have fallen out of it. Harriet was thinking, What a pity I came in… and refused to be shocked at herself. Heavy bars were put in, and there Ben would stand on the sill, gripping the bars and shaking them, and surveying the outside world, letting out his thick, raucous cries.

Later on, the book hinges on this same idea in a slightly different way… whether Harriet allows Ben to be “taken care of” and what her decision means for the rest of her family. It’s a terrible question, a riveting one. What struck me as fascinating, however, about the book and where Lessing ultimately goes with it, is that right from the beginning Ben’s difference is depicted in extreme terms. He’s so obviously monstrous, so inhuman. And while the story unravels, the reader finds it almost too easy to sympathize with the people willing to do whatever it takes to make things normal again for this family. When Harriet finally does make her decision, it’s almost shocking. Almost. But it effectively recasts all the earlier questions we’ve had to the situation, and what decisions we—as readers, as people, as parents—might have entertained.

There is a sequel to this novel called Ben in the World, which Lessing published twelve years after The Fifth Child. Has anyone read both?

Finally, while I sat here writing this out, I realized that I’ve actually read a third Lessing title, The Grandmothers, which is a collection of four novellas and was the first Lessing I read. It was quite good, especially the title story “The Grandmothers.” I remember enjoying the second piece, “Victoria and the Staveneys,” as well.

So, really, I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by her… I know that I will read The Golden Notebook at some point, along with her other novels—although I admit I’m a bit lost as to where to go next, so suggestions would be very welcome. (I don’t believe I would be interested in any of her science fiction-esque work, but perhaps I’m wrong.)

12 Responses to “Doris Lessing – The Fifth Child”

  1. Anthony

    It sounds interesting. I’ve only read ‘The Golden Notebook’ and plan to reread one day, a wonderful, multi-layered book.

    • Michelle

      I have The Golden Notebook and really do plan to read it – I’m not sure why it never seems like the right time. Perhaps I’m expecting it to be dull, but I don’t know where I’ve gotten that impression. It would be a good book to read this year, however, amidst my big run of women writers.

      • Jen McGuire

        The Golden Notebook is just a marvelous book! The innovative structure was unfortunately overshadowed by the book’s (also important!) feminism when it was published, but it’s also a majorly pleasurable read. I read it this year and enjoyed it so very much.

    • Michelle

      Very interesting to read the plot summary of Ben in the World – I think I will read it, especially as what happens to him follows what Harriet dreams of him in one of the final scenes. In that sense, I see him as “her creation” in more than just a physical way – and that raises an interesting question about identity. Is Ben who he is because he was born that way, or is also who he is because of other people’s perception of him?

  2. Stefanie

    Isn’t this a fantastic book? I read it a number of years ago and whenever I think about it it still gives me chills. My husband has read this one too as well as Ben in the World which I know I will get to eventually. I seem to recall he said it was good but not quite as gripping as Fifth Child.

    • Michelle

      It is a really powerful book – and I can see why it might be difficult for the sequel to be as powerful. Perhaps we have more instinctive sympathy for the fate of a child?

  3. Definitely the Opera

    I can swear by every page in the collection of her short stories that Flamingo issued in 2002, To Room Nineteen. Utter brilliance.

    Then earlier this year I met a pianist who composed a series of miniatures for the prepared piano, each of which is based on a story by Lessing (and she chose many of which I haven’t read–so there’s much yet to be discovered). A member of the audience gets to stand up and read a few lines from the story before each piece starts. Really a welcome and unusual mix of registers. (Here’s the conversation with the pianist: http://definitelytheopera.wordpress.com/2012/03/23/lcmiller/)

    • Michelle

      I was shocked to see how many collections of short stories she has written – there are some many it’s hard to know where to start. I’ll take your advice on To Room Nineteen.

  4. litlove

    I think she’s an amazing writer. I’ve read quite a few of her novels, although not this one. But I’ve enjoyed Martha Quest, The Golden Notebooks and Love, Again, also her two brilliant volumes of memoir. She was a very deserving recipient of the Nobel prize!

    • Michelle

      Am adding the two other titles you mention to my list – she is definitely an incredible writer. Have you read The Grandmothers? I really enjoyed the variety of questions it raised.

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