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A Gripping and Unsettling Read
on 16 November 2013
Doris Lessing's 'The Fifth Child' may be a slim novel, but it is one that makes a real impact and is a compelling read from beginning to end. Harriet and David Lovatt have a seemingly idyllic life; they have four lovely children and plan to have several more; they have a beautiful, rambling family house complete with a huge kitchen where family and friends congregate; they have parents who are willing to support them with financial and practical help, and everything is going just the way they planned - that is until Harriet falls pregnant with their fifth child. This pregnancy is different from Harriet's previous pregnancies; the baby is so active that Harriet feels it is trying to fight its way out of her body, and this it does, one month prematurely, weighing eleven pounds and looking "like a troll or a goblin." They name the baby Ben and hope he will settle down and become more like their other four children - but Ben does not settle down at all, in fact he becomes a violent and virtually uncontrollable child who terrorises the whole family - adults, children and animals alike. Convinced that she has given birth to a throwback from the past, Harriet becomes deeply afraid of the creature that she has brought into the world and into the midst of her previously happy family.
As expected from a writer of Doris Lessing's calibre, this a well-written and thought-provoking read, but it's also very chilling and unsettling too. Admittedly there are parts to this novel that are a little unconvincing and I kept thinking would this couple really have reacted in the way they did in certain situations - which I would love to discuss further, but cannot as it would mean revealing spoilers - and I do have to say that I became rather irritated with David and Harriet (as I am sure the author intended) as they selfishly go ahead with their plans for their dream life, buying a huge house they cannot afford, having one child after another and expecting Harriet's mother to spend all her time looking after them, and relying on David's father to pay the mortgage and the school fees. And having accepted David's wealthy father's handouts, could they not have used some of this money to find a more enlightened specialist (even in the 1970s/80s) who might have been able to offer a more satisfactory diagnosis or even just a more sympathetic approach to Ben's problems? All of that said however, I found this a gripping and unputdownable read, which I started and finished in one sitting and although I have read several of this author's novels, reading this has made me keen to obtain those that I haven't yet read and remedy that situation. If you are in the mood for a literary chiller (its most chilling factor being the failure to adequately acknowledge, let alone begin to address Ben's difficulties) then this should fit the bill for you.