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.)