The Fifth Child – Doris Lessing

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I loved We Need to Talk About Kevin, so when Dorte suggested that The Fifth Child sounded similar, I decided to find a copy. Dorte is right, the two books both deal with a mother who is struggling to deal with ‘an unlovable child’ and I think fans of We Need to Talk About Kevin will enjoy this one too.

The Fifth Child focuses on a loving couple, Harriet and David, who buy a big house and dream of filling it with happy children. Each year they have a new child, and their dream seems to be coming true, but then everything changes when their fifth child is born. Ben is different from the beginning. She feels his violence even during the pregnancy, and when he is born he is of a completely different temperament to his older brothers and sisters. Harriet struggles to cope with his aggressive behaviour, which seems to get worse as he grows. The older children become isolated and fearful of their younger brother, and the family begins to fall apart.

The book raises many important issues, including whether ‘bad’ children are born that way, and whether it is more important to look after the four ‘good’ children, or focus your attention on the one difficult child.

I found Ben’s character a lot less believable than Kevin’s. His violence seemed a bit extreme, for example I cannot imagine any one-year-old deliberately killing animals, and found it even more implausible that she had to chase an 18-month-old for more than a mile before catching him – surely any adult can catch any child under the age of five in less than 50 metres?  

I also found the writing style a little tedious – there were no breaks in the text at all – no chapters, not even a small break between paragraphs. So, although it was only a short book (130 pages) I found it difficult to find places to stop for a short break. These are minor issues though, as this book is well worth reading.

Overall, this was a very interesting book, which would be perfect for book clubs. Recommended to anyone interested in parenting issues.

stars4

Have you read any books by Doris Lessing?

Can you recommend any other books which focus on similar parenting issues?


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20 Comments

  1. Meghan says:

    I have read this one for a class at university. I didn’t like it very much and the character of Ben made me uncomfortable. He is almost a supernatural baby, a caricature of an impossible child. I also have The Golden Notebook which is supposed to be her most famous book but I haven’t read it yet. There is also a sequel to this called Ben in the World but I don’t have much interest in reading it.

  2. Jackie says:

    Meghan – I agree – Ben made me feel uncomfortable too. He didn’t come across as a realistic child, he was almost like a little devil. I’m not very interested in reading the sequel, but I would line to read more books by Lessing.

  3. Steph says:

    I have this one in my TBR pile and almost picked it up right after I finished We Need to Talk About Kevin… but then I thought it might be “bad child” overload! I hadn’t read any reviews about it and had really just picked it up because I knew Lessing had won the Nobel Prize, so I might as well read at least one of her books… Anyway, thanks for reviewing this, because given your experiences, I think I will have better expectations for this going in. I’ll know to take everything with a grain of salt, given the somewhat incredulous elements!

  4. Beth F says:

    I’ve read at least one Doris Lessing book. I remember my brother warned me not to read it because I’d be sucked in and then disappointed in the end. He was right on both accounts!

  5. Jackie says:

    Steph – I think you were right not to read it straight after Kevin. They have a very similar synopsis and you would have had bad child overload! I didn’t realise she had won the Nobel prize – I’ll have to add this post to the Nobel category!

    Beth – Was it this one you read? I thought the ending to this one was quite good, but I don’t think men would appreciate it. This is a book which will appeal to women who have had children.

  6. Jenny says:

    I never realize how much I depend on section or chapter breaks until I try to read a book that doesn’t have them! One of my favorite authors, Martin Millar, starts out his book Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me, by saying, “I know you have a short attention span. So have I….When I’m reading a book I need the chapters to be brief. No part of this novel is longer than a few hundred words. Even with a short attention span, you’ll be able to read it easily, a little at a time.”

    …It’s so true.

  7. Jackie says:

    Jenny – LOL! I have never heard of Martin Miller, but he seems very sensible! I’m not sure why this book has no breaks at all. It doesn’t seem necessary for the plot.

  8. kimbofo says:

    I love this book. Read it last year. See review here: http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/2008/07/the-fifth-child-by-doris-lessing.html

    Yes, Kevin is violent and strange, but the book is supposed to be a horror story so I don’t think you should read too much into the fact that he doesn’t seem believable. And it’s also a fable about being careful for what you wish for, and has a moral message about having children for the sake of having children. I came away from it thinking it was ultimately a story about greed and selfishness, because surely David and Harriet were selfish in having so many children that they simply could not afford.

    Did you know there is a second part, called “Ben in the World”? I’ve not read it, but it sounds interesting…

    As to other Lessings I have read, I absolutely loved “Summer Before the Dark”. I gave it four-out-of-five stars at the time, but I actually think I should have given it five stars because I *STILL* think about it, almost a year later.

    http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/2008/08/the-summer-before-the-dark-by-doris-lessing.html?cid=128484686#comment-6a00d83451bcff69e200e554d1d0268833

  9. Jackie says:

    Kimbofo – Thank you for your helpful comment. I didn’t realise it was supposed to be a horror story. It makes much more sense now I know that. It didn’t quite work as a horror story for me though, as it seemed a bit too realistic, apart from the violence of Ben, which just seemed a little bit far – fetched. I really enjoyed reading it though, and I’d love to know what you think of ‘Ben in the World’ as it doesn’t really appeal to me at the moment.

    I’ll go and take a quick look at your reviews – thanks for leaving the links.

  10. Diane says:

    This book sounds a bit too disturbing for me. Sorry, since my children have been grown for some time, I can’t think of any books with parenting issues. Great review.

  11. Jackie says:

    Diane – I didn’t really find it disturbing, as it didn’t come across as real enough – I just found Ben’s character a bit too bizarre! If you aren’t interested in parenting issues any more then it probably isn’t for you though.

  12. Kim says:

    I remember watching The Omen and being mortified by the thought of a child being so nasty and evil. My boys were small at the time so perhaps that is why I was so disturbed by it. I still have a bit of a legacy from The Omen, it seems because it was the first thing that came into my mind as I was reading your review. I also find books without breaks really challenging and quite exhausting to read.
    Thanks for the great review, Jackie.

  13. Samantha says:

    We had a great discussion over We Need to Talk About Kevin at my book club – a great book club pick.

    This book may help me to read my first Doris Lessing – which I have been meaning to do for a VERY long time!

  14. Violet says:

    I had read in some book that aggresion in children could be genetic and sometimes children are just born that way. I haven’t read We Need to Talk About Kevin, but it is on my wishlist. I’ll add this one too.

  15. Jackie says:

    Kim – I haven’t seen the Omen, but it sounds like something I should avoid – I’m easily scared by films!

    Samantha – In many ways this has more issues to discuss than WNTTAK, but I hope you enjoy reading it anyway!

    Violet – That is the big nature/nurture debate. Everyone has their own opinions, but I think that it must be a mixture of both.

  16. Beth F says:

    It was The Golden Notebook and the disappointment was not with the ending but that the book was a disappointment in general.

  17. Jenners says:

    Totally interesting! As you know, we came at this book from very different places. I was not nearly the fan of it that you were! I did love “We Need To Talk About Kevin” though, which I think does raise the same issues but in a more believable and viable way — also it seemed more “accessible” to me than this one. This one seemed so dated to me.

  18. Jackie says:

    Beth – That’s a shame. I’m sure I’ll get round to it one day, but it isn’t top of my list.

    Jenners – I didn’t find The Fifth Child dated, although I would hope that many of things wouldn’t happen these days (especially the section where Ben was taken away). The couple seemed realistic and could easily exist today. I preferred We Need To Talk About Kevin, but this was a good book too and it is interesting to compare the two.

    The Fifth Child raises slightly different issues, about siblings, so it is a little bit different. I think everyone should read both of them!

  19. Michelle says:

    I’ve only read one Lessing book, The Good Terrorist, which I ‘enjoyed’ – have also started and stopped on The Golden Notebook more times than I can count. I have a copy of The Grass Is Singing though, and hope to read it soon. Doris Lessing is just one of those authors that I feel like I’d like if I read more by her.

    Might wait awhile before trying this one though. Not sure how comfortable I feel about the subject matter. Only made it part way through We Need To Talk About Kevin before putting it down for a bit of a break (more than a year ago now!)

  20. Jackie says:

    Michelle – I feel I should read more Doris Lessing books too.

    I hope you manage to pick up Kevin again one day – it really is a very good book.

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