The Fifth Child, by Doris Lessing

Whoa! This was a freaky book. I can’t even remember the last time I read a book in a single day, but that’s what I did with this one yesterday. It went so fast that I never even had a chance to post it in my sidebar.

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing is the story of a young couple, Harriet and David, who fall in love, get married, and buy a gigantic old house which they plan to fill up with babies as fast as they can. And they do: four children in six years. And despite financial worries, they are quite happy & content.

When Harriet finds herself pregnant with number five, though, things become difficult. This pregnancy is not like the others; even in the first trimester the baby kicks so hard that she is in constant pain. And when Ben is born, he is difficult to love. He looks like a troll or goblin, he has cold beady watchful eyes, he shows no love or affection ever, and he is preternaturally strong. As he grows up he becomes increasingly violent and difficult to care for. His behavior has a negative effect on the entire family. The older kids spend as little time at home as they can, Harriet and David’s marriage suffers, and their extended family becomes estranged. Various strategies are attempted but there is no real resolution, no happy ending.

This is a book that could totally overwhelm you, especially if you have kids. However, it is actually quite readable, and the reason why (I think) is because it feels more like an allegory than a novel. It is quite short and there are no subplots. The characters are not quite real. What this is about is the dangers of complacency. Because before Ben comes along, Harriet & David are quite smug. Their parents don’t approve of their large family and their fiscal irresponsibility, but Harriet and David are happily united in their self-congratulations. It’s obvious from the very beginning that they need to be shaken up — that they are headed for a fall. And although elements of Ben’s character seem based on real-life diagnoses (autism, hyperactivity, sociopathy), in fact he is more like a fairy-tale changeling.

My favorite part about this book, actually, was the house. I love it when the setting plays an important role in the plot, and I particularly love it when that setting is a big old house.

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  1. Kudos to you for linking to Indiebound instead of Amazon.

    • ALWAYS!! Well, I do amazon for music because I don’t know of a better way. Suggestions welcome.

  2. Browsing thanks to your block quotes posts. Do you know The Napping House? Excellent kids book, with gorgeous illustrations and a great big old house.

    • Thanks for stopping by! I’m glad you found the block quote post helpful (I just found the poem on your blog). I love The Napping House! Another kids book about a house that just occurred to me is The Four Story Mistake by Elizabeth Enright. I learned the word “cupola” from reading that book.


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