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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Social Stigma., 17 April 2014
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This review is from: The Fifth Child (Paladin Books) (Paperback)
Harriet and David Lovatt meet and fall in love during the sexual revolution that took place in the 1960s but far from subscribing to the sexual mores of their generation they are conservative and espouse traditional family values. Their dream is to buy a large house in the countryside and have lots of children. They get married and promptly set about achieving their goal purchasing the large country house courtesy of David's Dad who provides the necessary finance. Having had four children in quick succession, Harriet is beginning to suffer the stress and strain of rearing four children with the added complication of money worries. There is also the fact that her parents and in-laws do not approve of her having so many children and especially having them so close together. Therefore Harriet is naturally dismayed to discover she is pregnant with her fifth child and when the pregnancy becomes increasingly painful and the growing baby unnaturally active, she is at the end of her tether and by the time the baby arrives she is convinced he/she will not be "normal".

Baby Ben is an extremely large and unprepossessing infant being very hairy and having a neanderthal appearance. From birth he is difficult and seems to respond only to his own basic needs and fails to respond to others. As he grows things deteriorate even further and Ben becomes a danger, both emotionally and even physically, to his siblings which in turn places a huge strain on Harriet and David's marriage and forces them to take steps. There are several developments in this novel which I will not go into as it is best left to the reader to make their own journey.

This is a compelling and disturbing story and raises many questions, not least how society views and treats disability. Harriet never managed to find the support she so badly needed form the medical establishment; in fact, nobody who had contact with Ben i.e. doctors, teachers, family would admit that there was anything really wrong with him - apart from Harriet's mother who helped to rear him. One part of the book is particularly difficult and depressing and that is when Ben is placed in an institution.

Another thing that struck me as I read this book is that since Ben's condition is never diagnosed or explained I felt at times he was a figure from science fiction. Yet the thread of a neanderthal runs through the narrative. There is also the chicken-and-egg aspect i.e. since Harriet was so appalled at being pregnant with Ben perhaps this was communicated in some way to the baby growing in her womb; this question also reared its head in Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk about Kevin.

Disturbing this book may be but Doris Lessing is a gifted writer and the story held my undivided attention right to the final page.
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