When Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, I wasted no time in getting hold of one of her books: The Golden Notebook, as it was the only one they had in my local bookshop. I then wasted even less time reading it …by which I mean I didn’t bother. It seemed so long (“But novels – they’re all long, aren’t they? They’re all so long,” as my namesake put it in Martin Amis’s Money), with such small print, and such high intentions, that I was perversely put off by how good and important it might be. At least that’s my excuse. Last week when I was killing time in an airport, I found instead her slim later novel The Fifth Child. 150 pages! Now we’re talking. (Yes I am ashamed.)
The Fifth Child was published in 1988, but set in the 1960s and 70s, when more fluid social mores create a firmer base for the novelist. The timing seems to be important, even though on one level the story is an old archetype of the normal parent and the monstrous child. Think The Midwich Cuckoos, Rosemary’s Baby, or Simon Fisher in Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge. David and Harriet are a couple of borderline social misfits – or more kindly, simply not in tune with their times – who meet at an office party and quickly strike a chord and settle down. And by quickly I mean that Lessing’s pacing is eccentric to say the least: no wasting time letting the characters bed in when you can just get them in bed and married in literally a couple of lines. At the party
they went on sitting there, close, talking, until the noise began to lessen in the rooms across the corridor, and then they went quietly out and to his flat, which was near. There they lay on his bed holding hands and talked, and sometimes kissed, and then slept. Almost at once she moved into his flat, for she had been able to afford only a room in a big communal flat. They had already decided to marry in the spring.
I had to read it a couple of times to make sure some sort of dimensional shift – or printer’s error – hadn’t taken place. But all Lessing is doing is cutting down on the waffle, avoiding the tiring authorial (and readerly) slog of getting characters from one place to another plausibly. It kept me on my toes as a reader, as did her prose, where each sentence never quite ended up where I thought it would at the beginning.
David and Harriet want to have “lots” of children (“six, eight, ten”) which earns them the disapproval of their families: and not without reason, as even when they have their first four, they can’t afford to keep them and have to rely on their relatives for financial support. It’s the fifth child, as the title suggests, which will breach what the back cover blurb calls their “glorious hymn to domestic bliss and old-fashioned family values: four children, a beautiful house, the love of relatives and friends.” But I didn’t read it this way at all. As already mentioned, that familial love is decidedly muted, and there’s something both sickeningly religiose (their favourite times of year are Christmas and Easter: birth, and rebirth) and even sinister about David and Harriet’s wilful self-determination, and their vision of themselves as a perfect, flawless unit.
‘You aren’t really going to have four more children?’ enquired Sarah, sighing – and they all knew she was saying, four more challenges to destiny. She gently put her hand over the sleeping Amy’s head, covered in a shawl, holding it safe from the world.
‘Yes, we are,’ said David.
‘Yes, we certainly are,’ said Harriet. ‘This is what everyone wants, really, but we’ve been brainwashed out of it. People want to live like this, really.’
It doesn’t last long, when Harriet falls pregnant with Ben, who in the womb kicks and struggles with such ferocity that “sometimes she believed hooves were cutting her tender inside flesh, sometimes claws.” It doesn’t get any better from there, and the last two-thirds of the book deals with David and Harriet’s struggles to deal, and not to deal, with this – what? – stroke of bad luck? Punishment for hubris?
Harriet was wondering why she was always treated like a criminal. Ever since Ben was born it’s been like this, she thought. Now it seemed to her the truth, that everyone had silently condemned her. I have suffered a misfortune, she told herself; I haven’t committed a crime.
The results tell us as much about social conformity and responses to difference as they do about Harriet, David and Ben themselves. Indeed, when every thought and experience of Harriet in particular is under the microscope, and I sometimes wanted a little more mystery, it’s precisely the unknowability of Ben’s character – is he a genetic throwback? A goblin child? A Frankenstein’s monster? – which provides this essential distance for the reader.
All these ‘issues’, together with the slim extent of the book, make it the sort of thing which would go down a storm in book groups, though I realise that to some that will sound like an insult, which I don’t intend it to be. It’s frankly impressive to squeeze so much into such a small package: I kept wanting to look for hidden compartments. But the ending seems almost randomly placed; and the view that Ben’s story could have been ended earlier, or later, seems validated by the fact that on turning the last page, I was greeted with an advert for Ben, in the World, a sequel which Lessing published a dozen years later.