Doris Lessing, The Fifth Child (Knopf, 1988)
[originally posted 15Mar2001]
Harriet and David Lovett (ah, the symbolism) are doomed from the start. Young and married in the early sixties, living mostly off David’s father and rich young stepmother, they have been beguiled by that most insidious and destructive Christian aphorism, “be fruitful and multiply.” They want kids, oodles of kids, a plethora of kids, a monstrous family. And they get it, in more ways than one, with the birth of Ben, the fifth child of the title.
If you know Lessing, you probably already have an idea of whether you’ll like this or not. Lessing’s style is dry, English-minimalist-ironic-witty, the kind of uppercrust diction often misrepresented in the American media as a kind of disaffected snobbery. This book, perhaps of all the Lessings that have crossed my path over the years, puts paid once and for all to the snobbery aspect, as Lessing turns her didactic tone and minimalist attitude to the exploration of the horror of raising an outcast.
Not to say this is a horror novel, any more than Geoffrey Household’s The Sending, Stephen Gregory’s The Woodwitch, or Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun are horror novels; none fits the genre per se, but all leave the reader with a decidedly sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. Call it the experience of quotidian horror, rather than the Lovecraftian howling-mad beasts or Steve King’s terrors in the closet. (One could probably make the case that Lessing, Household, Gregory, and Trumbo were the founding fathers of what’s being termed “the new horror” these days, which I’ve called in other reviews “the horror of absence,” so ably written by Kathe Koja and Lucius Shepard, among others. The criticisms most often levelled at this novel are exactly the same as those aimed at the newer writers, and for the same reasons—”not enough is going on.”)
It is also obvious from the start that this is a flight of fantasy, a piece of utter fiction in the truest sense, and that the characters are symbolic of something. Lessing never really lets you in on what they’re symbols of until the final paragraphs, and while it’s not a spoiler in the traditional sense, it would be a criminal act for me to reveal the way Lessing wraps things up at the end; suffice to say the closing paragraphs of this novel are some of the strongest I’ve encountered in a very long time.
Only three and a half months into 2001, this is already an extremely strong year for my reading list, but I still think The Fifth Child has a good chance of making this year’s Top 15 list. ****