Doris Lessing: The Fifth Child

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

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.


  1. My bookgroup tried to read the Golden Notebook, but since it was spring and the weather was nice, no one finished it.

    I am going to try again, since I am now officially in summer hibernation mode.

    This book seems more suitable for a spring read for our book group.

    I will check it out, if I can find it.

  2. I read the Golden Notebook in the late sixties and thought it was brilliant, but I imagine it must be pretty dated four decades on. I’m trying to think of contemporary novels equally as illuminating about women’s lives but it’s difficult to think of anything. Maybe something like Post Birthday World or The Bastard of Istanbul.

  3. Excellent review.

    My reaction on acquiring a copy of The Golden Notebook was the same as yours. I’d heard so many wonderful things about it, but couldn’t quite bring myself to read it. It has sat in my To Be Read pile ever since.

  4. Thanks kim.

    Are you going to read “Ben in the World”, the sequel to “The Fifth Child”?

    Probably not, Isabel. I enjoyed The Fifth Child but it didn’t exactly leave me champing at the bit to read more Lessing. I hope however that I will – like you and kim! – get around to The Golden Notebook in due course. I have to say that any book group which chooses a 600-page novel is either optimistic or deluded!

    I’m trying to think of contemporary novels equally as illuminating about women’s lives but it’s difficult to think of anything. Maybe something like Post Birthday World or The Bastard of Istanbul.

    Ah, you’re determined to get us to read The Post-Birthday World by hook or by crook, aren’t you Nick! Interesting you should mention The Bastard of Istanbul – I read Elif Shafak’s earlier novel The Flea Palace (I think that was the title, from memory) on recommendation from a friend but couldn’t finish it. It reminded me a little of Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual with the apartment setting, but it didn’t grip me I’m afraid.

  5. Sometimes long novels just seem so long. They can be such an investment and I talk myself off of the ledge of Tolstoy length whoppers consistently. (Though oddly enough I couldn’t set Anna Karenina down!) Terrific and accurate description of the “sickeningly religiose … determination” of Harriet and David. I don’t even think I thought of it much at the time, but there is definitely something terrifying from the start of the novel and long before Ben enters the scene. When I was reading I gave a good deal of thought to the tranquilizers because I am very slightly aware of the Thalidomide trauma that happened in England in the late 50s through the early 60s.

    “Thalidomide was first licensed for use in the UK in 1958 as a cure for morning sickness.

    But some 10,000 babies were born with deformities after their mothers took the drug while pregnant.

    By 1961 it had been withdrawn from sale after evidence of severe side-effects” (BBC).

    No idea how much if any influence this had on Lessing, but this was definitely my favorite interpretation of the book.

  6. Thanks bookchronicle. I see you mention the sequel Ben, in the World in the comments on your own excellent blog entry for The Fifth Child.

    [T]he follow up book really destroyed a lot of the hypothesis that had drawn me to this book. In the follow up, Lessing is much more straight forward with what’s happening and I admit I preferred the room for interpretation.

    That’s what I was afraid of when reading reviews and blurb for the book. Isabel, per your question above, that makes it a definite no for me!

    And I agree that Anna Karenina is unputdownable – but it still did take me a long time to get around to picking it up in the first place!

  7. The Fifth Child was my introduction to Lessing. I went on to read the sequel as like you I didn’t feel the first one ended in quite the right place. The second book is quite different but still striking. Lessing caught me by surprise, her writing is a lot more spikey and twisted than I expected it to be.

    Interesting that Lionel Shriver has cropped up in this comments thread, because The Fifth Child reminded me of We Need to Talk About Kevin in some ways – questions about the natural mothering instinct and if there are times when it fails.

  8. The book the Fifth Child was nice and short, so I actually read it online at It’s a great website for any prolific or interested reader- its been very helpful in my travels. As for Lessing, I enjoyed her book Love, Again more than I did this one. She can be quite abrupt sometimes, just as she is in the Fifth Child, but her prose is beautiful and her philosophical and humanist insights into Sarah’s soul, somehow completely unique to her character and utterly universal at the same time. I feel that the sharpness of her transitions adds to the feeling surrounding the uncertainty of the human condition. In the Fifth Child, though, it’s hard not to be put off by the strange situations and abruptness- maybe a bit of balance would have made me enjoy it more. Nonetheless, Lessing is a brilliant author and I recommend that anyone read more of her work.

  9. I loved The Fifth Child, and have recommended it to dozens of people who, for one reason or another, think Lessing isn’t for them. Mostly, they’ve been happy to have found her. You’re right to notice, though, how odd her prose is. For such an apparently plain writer, it’s startlingly idiosyncratic; it often gives me the impression that she knows she hasn’t got it quite right, but can’t be bothered to stop and fix it – she has more important things to do than polish. At other times, as in a wonderful parody of Kerouac in The Golden Notebook (which you must read!), her writing is perfectly crafted. Which makes you wonder how much of the oddness is intentional. It’s also there, though, in her journalism, which strikes me as very rushed off and even clumsy.

    On no account, though, should you bother with Ben in the World! What you should do instead is read The Good Terrorist and, why not? take a look at some of the Canopus in Argos series. They’re not always easy reading, but they’re worth it.

  10. Thanks for your comments, jem, mia and Charles. Interesting observations all. Once again we see that a writer with a large body of work tends to polarise readers on which books are her best. Which of course is as it should be, though it’s a very human instinct to want to box a writer off and decide, on the basis of one book, whether they’re ‘your sort of thing’ or not. Lessing, I’m going to have to admit, deserves more investigation than that.

  11. Hi John, great posts recently. I agree with the ending of the novel. I read it a while ago and in an american edition (Vintage), really horrible cover, nothing like the one you got. I also read the Golden Notebook and thought it was a masterpiece, absolutely great today, all this psychoanalitic approach, feminist conflicts, etc. Also, Briefing for a descent into hell is up there! The good thing about the Nobel prize is that they get the editions going…

  12. This book Was amazing i like every bit of it i felt like the child was me but no it wasent i wash it was xx

  13. I don’t know if anyone will read this now but I’m glad to read the comments here. I just read the Fifth Child and precisely what struck me was that Ben was far more normal than his parents were. I was never sure whether the Fifth Child was just an inocuous horror novel along the old ‘aren’t children creepy?’ lines or a hard-hitting commentary on the dangers of suburban narrow-mindedness leading to the demonisation of any one who doesn’t follow an entirely mediochre course of development. The bit where Ben was institutionalised I thought was chilling.

  14. Thanks Suzy, and rest assured that I at least have read your comment! (And probably others too, as this post remains for some reason the fourth most-viewed of all the post on my blog.) I must say your interpretation is very interesting, though it’s so long since I read the book (and my review!) that I can’t remember if I thought the same, the complete opposite, or something entirely other…!

  15. Haven’t read 5th Child yet but have become interested in bad-seed plots so definitely will! Some to add to your list are Mildred Pierce and, of course, We Need to Talk about Kevin. I read The Golden Notebook after hearing a radio dramatization (of the easiest-to-understand) parts and loved the cleverness of the structure and the commentary on turning life into fiction – definitely worth the time.

  16. Having recently read The Fifth Child, for similar reasons to yours – it being so appealingly slim – I must say I left it with a different feeling. Indeed, I was amazed at the way Lessing ploughed through time with no mercy, and taken by how uncomfortable David and Harriet’s views on life made me. But more so, for me it was a terrifying account of a mother’s bond to a child. First, the expectant mother’s pain when no one sees what she constantly feels in her bruised womb. She is alone in her pain, with little understanding from husband or doctor. Her child is killing her. Second, the same mother’s unwillingness to part from her monstrous child, though it ultimately causes her separation from her other beloved children. It is portrayed like a sickness, Harriet’s desperate attempts at being a ‘good’ parent, with no possible success in sight. But could you leave him at the ‘clinic’? You want to scream at her to let Ben go, but you know she won’t do that. And he ruins her. She allows it, whether out of guilt, or self-punishment, or sense of duty…

    There is some similarity to Frankenstein, which I admit is my favourite novel, but it is yet darker and bleaker.

  17. What an interesting comment, Frida. I wonder if my response to the book would be different now that I am a parent – in fact I’m somewhat tempted to give it another go now…!

  18. I too like it when novels are shorter. I am definitely sold if its ~150 pages. Currently i am reading “The Habit of Loving” a collection of short stories by Doris Lessing. Just finished two stories and they have held my interest.

  19. I’m a fan of Doris Lessing and find her developmental curve of interests over the years fascinating. Her style doesn’t go down like honey and, as someone here touched upon, requests attention. In the flap of the book ‘London Observed,’ it says she has a shrewd and compassionate eye. This sounds right. And there is wisdom shining through her works, which makes reading time well spent. I particularly like the Canopus in Argos series.

  20. Look carefully for how Lessing moves us in and out of Harriet’s head. You noted the on moment with Sarah being described as protecting Amy’s head “against the world” with the shawl. Turn back the page and note the same situation depicted as Sarah covering up Amy’s head, “so as to not upset everyone.”. Both are recounted by the narrator. The reader is being prompted to read the narrator carefully. One of the things you’ll note is how we move, effortlessly, in and out of Harriet’s narrow, racist, really very awful mind… Lessing is brilliant and terrifying. Harriet is the archetype of the anti Mother. And Ben did NOT kill the dog, or the cat.

  21. Ben is a spooky kid but he doesn’t do anything evil that we know for certain. I enjoyed it, though, for its creepiness–more like a long short story than a novel.

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