The Fifth Child

By Doris Lessing

The Fifth Child is the story of a woman who, upon falling pregnant with her fifth child, knows immediately something is different about this kid. In utero, he kicks and flips and at times feels like he’s trying to break from her womb. Then Ben is born and he’s ugly, like bad ugly. Like troll ugly. And his violence continues, fueled by an insatiable hunger. His presence severely disrupts the domestic bliss Harriet and David Lovatt have created for themselves in 1960s England.

As the child grows, Harriet finds herself unable to love the child, which is the thing I like best about this book. All mothers are supposed to love their children wholly and unconditionally, but Harriet can’t bring herself to. She tries but Ben is so unlikeable and so different from her other children, Harriet struggles. David, meanwhile, won’t even touch his fifth child, while the rest of the children avoid him out of fear.

While I think this is supposed to be horror, I read it more as social commentary. What are we supposed to do when we don’t like our own flesh and blood? What if we spawn a person we abhor? Ben never does anything overtly horrible, like kill someone, but what if he had? Would that make Harriet’s struggle easier?

Lessing’s portrayal of the family is remarkable in the way she plays with our emotional responses. At times Harriet’s feelings toward her child are condemnable, yet understandable because you can’t force yourself to like someone–even if that someone is your own child. When we jump inside Ben’s point of view, we see that he can’t help who he is–no matter what he does, it’s the wrong thing. He’s a lonely child struggling to survive through no fault of his own.

“She wanted to be acknowledged, her predicament given its value.”    Click To Tweet

And that brings me to another point: this book reminds us that we all act and react stemming from experiences we’ve had in the past. Ben can’t help the way he was born, in much the same way that a poor “white trash” person can’t help their own circumstances. That obnoxious lady in front of you in line can’t help that she wasn’t born beautiful. Because she didn’t conform, she was relegated to the sidelines of life, and in order for her needs to be met, she had to get louder and louder just to be heard. And this, my friends, is the power of fiction. We learn to see life from another perspective and to know that our feelings (one way or the other) are valid and yet mutable.

Wine Rating: 3/5

Best Paired With: A snifter (not sphincter) of brandy.

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