BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Harriet and David Lovatt deal with the birth of their son, Ben, who is monstrous in appearance and abnormally strong.
PROS: Stark portrayal of marital and parental relationships; successfully conveys a feeling of discomfort.
CONS: That same feeling of discomfort translated into a disconnected reading experience; The Lovatts are not very endearing people.
BOTTOM LINE: Deals with serious subjects and is downright depressing.
Doris Lessing is a writer who made her mark writing mainstream literature but who has also dabbled in science fiction. To my discredit, I had never heard of her until her name appeared in a Book Magazine poll for the greatest living British writer and it was pointed out to me that she was a genre writer. Well, this biblioholic needed no more prodding than that to pick up a book bearing her name when it happened to catch my eye at the bookstore.
The Fifth Child is the story of two hopeful lovebirds, Harriet and David Lovatt, who meet in the ’60s, fall in love, and get married with intentions of raising a very large family. But their fifth child, Ben, throws their world into turmoil. He is somewhat deformed with his Neanderthal-like appearance and he exhibits strength beyond his years. As can be expected, Ben puts a serious burden on the family who must now cope with him.
I knew this was not one of the sf titles that Lessing is known for – that would be the Canopus in Argos books – but that description sounded like it had a good sf foundation to me. But is The Fifth Child really science fiction? The dust jacket labels the book as fiction/literature, but it also has a quote from The New York Times Book Review who calls it “a moral fable of the genre that includes Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.” (Nice…as if calling it “science fiction” would scare away the potential readers.) Without getting into the vagaries and catfights surrounding the definition of science fiction, I make note that whatever science fiction elements are here (genetic mutation and the “soft” sciences like sociology) are not at all integral to the story. The focus of the story is not on Ben’s mutation, which is never fully explained, but on the effect that Ben has on the Lovatt family, particularly Harriet.
As it plays out, The Fifth Child becomes a subtle social commentary on the treatment of the handicapped by society. Almost nobody who comes in contact with Ben – his doctors, teachers, family – will admit that there’s anything wrong. Only Harriet’s mother Dorothy, who the Lovatts enlist to help raise Ben, is ready to admit there’s a problem. And eventually Ben’s behavior escalates to the point where the parents are forced to act. Here, the novel takes a dark turn, indeed. In fact, much of this book was disturbing; not so much because of fictional elements, but because of its accurate depiction of the aspects of life we’d rather not talk about. But Lessing’s success at conveying that feeling of discomfort translated into a somewhat disconnected reading experience. Sometimes this book was downright depressing.
Harriet and David themselves were partly a problem, too. It was as if their shared dream of having a large family was interrupted by Ben. They consumed completely beyond their means (David’s father was consistently imposed upon for financial help) and their reaction to Ben was one of distance. I could understand, to some degree, the parents living within their own world of sedate happiness, but it was more like they lamented their shattered dreams more than they did Ben’s situation and his quality of life. The book reads, then, like a memoir of how their lives were ruined by Ben. The undercurrents – the one that depicts the strained relationship between the happy couple and a mother’s love – were ultimately much more heartfelt and effective.
Note: There’s a sequel (Ben, in the World) that supposedly focuses on Ben’s life after the events recounted here.