I didn’t mean to zip through Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child like I did but I couldn’t help myself. The book is short, only 133 pages in my edition. The story is told from the limited third person in an straightforward and matter of fact tone. All of this combines to give the book at the beginning a sense of waiting for something BAD to happen and when it does it makes it horrifying so that a simple description of one sentence can raise the hair on the back of your neck.
The story in The Fifth Child is as matter of fact and straightforward as the tone. It’s the 1960s and two social misfits (misfits because they do not partake in what the 60s had on offer), Harriet and David meet at an office party. They are attracted to each other by their “watchful apartness.” They find a quiet, empty office and spend the rest of the evening talking. When everyone is leaving Harriet goes with David to his apartment where they lay on his bed, fully clothed, holding hands and talking, talking, talking. They quickly marry and buy a house.
The house they buy outside of London is huge. They decide they want six children and even those six children would not be enough to fill the house. The house is a little beyond their means but David’s father (his parents are divorced) is considered rich and as a present to his son whom he never really fathered, he pays their mortgage. In less than a year the first baby is born.
To justify the fact of their huge house they start having family Christmas and Easter parties that are such a success both sides of the family get along and people turn their three-day stays to three weeks.
Harriet keeps having children. Her pregnancies are normal but difficult and the first four children are born at home without incident. They seem to be leading a charmed life. They are a big happy family and everything Harriet and David dreamed of they have. Until the fifth child.
Ben is not normal. When Harriet was three months pregnant he began moving around with such energy that she could not sit still for more than a few minutes. As her pregnancy advanced Harriet was certain he was bruising her insides at the very least, trying to kill her at the worst. Her doctor refused to acknowledge there was anything unusual and gave her a sedative that she took frequently otherwise she would not be able to rest at all.
Ben was born a month early and weighed 11 pounds. He has yellow eyes and looks like a troll or goblin. Soon Harriet’s breasts are black and blue from nursing Ben who appears to be purposefully and malevolently grinding his mouth on Harriet while feeding–but how can a baby have any such intention?
And so it goes. Ben’s presence in the family slowly tears it to pieces. The idyll Harriet and David had becomes a distant memory. And Harriet and David’s marriage falls apart, each growing more distant, each accusing the other. To David, Ben is not his son. Harriet feels like everyone accuses her of being a criminal for giving birth the creature that Ben is. And then she is accused again for trying, at the cost of being unable to mother her other children, to try and teach Ben how to be human.
Ben, let it be noted, is always a foreign creature, an alien, a throwback, a troll. He has no birth defect or disability, he is just wrong in some indescribable way. Everyone, even adults, are afraid of him. Animals are wary and keep out of his way. And other children try to be nice to him at first but then shun him.
The Fifth Child is one of those books that grabs you and doesn’t let go. It chronicles the dissolution of a family in the face of something that isn’t normal. It also accuses those in authority for turning a blind eye and refusing to acknowledge that something is wrong. In the end, Harriet is the only one who dares to look Ben in the eye and recognize him for what he is.