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The Fifth Child

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Doris Lessing's contemporary gothic horror story—centered on the birth of a baby who seems less than human—probes society's unwillingness to recognize its own brutality.

Harriet and David Lovatt, parents of four children, have created an idyll of domestic bliss in defiance of the social trends of late 1960s England. While around them crime and unrest surge, the Lovatts are certain that their old-fashioned contentment can protect them from the world outside—until the birth of their fifth baby. Gruesomely goblin-like in appearance, insatiably hungry, abnormally strong and violent, Ben has nothing innocent or infant-like about him. As he grows older and more terrifying, Harriet finds she cannot love him, David cannot bring himself to touch him, and their four older children are afraid of him. Understanding that he will never be accepted anywhere, Harriet and David are torn between their instincts as parents and their shocked reaction to this fierce and unlovable child whose existence shatters their belief in a benign world.

133 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1988

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About the author

Doris Lessing

347 books2,467 followers
Both of her parents were British: her father, who had been crippled in World War I, was a clerk in the Imperial Bank of Persia; her mother had been a nurse. In 1925, lured by the promise of getting rich through maize farming, the family moved to the British colony in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Like other women writers from southern African who did not graduate from high school (such as Olive Schreiner and Nadine Gordimer), Lessing made herself into a self-educated intellectual.

In 1937 she moved to Salisbury, where she worked as a telephone operator for a year. At nineteen, she married Frank Wisdom, and later had two children. A few years later, feeling trapped in a persona that she feared would destroy her, she left her family, remaining in Salisbury. Soon she was drawn to the like-minded members of the Left Book Club, a group of Communists "who read everything, and who did not think it remarkable to read." Gottfried Lessing was a central member of the group; shortly after she joined, they married and had a son.

During the postwar years, Lessing became increasingly disillusioned with the Communist movement, which she left altogether in 1954. By 1949, Lessing had moved to London with her young son. That year, she also published her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, and began her career as a professional writer.

In June 1995 she received an Honorary Degree from Harvard University. Also in 1995, she visited South Africa to see her daughter and grandchildren, and to promote her autobiography. It was her first visit since being forcibly removed in 1956 for her political views. Ironically, she is welcomed now as a writer acclaimed for the very topics for which she was banished 40 years ago.

In 2001 she was awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize in Literature, one of Spain's most important distinctions, for her brilliant literary works in defense of freedom and Third World causes. She also received the David Cohen British Literature Prize.

She was on the shortlist for the first Man Booker International Prize in 2005. In 2007 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

(Extracted from the pamphlet: A Reader's Guide to The Golden Notebook & Under My Skin, HarperPerennial, 1995. Full text available on www.dorislessing.org).

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Profile Image for Ahmad Sharabiani.
9,568 reviews55.5k followers
December 3, 2021
The Fifth Child, Doris Lessing

The Fifth Child is a short novel by the British-Zimbabwean writer Doris Lessing, first published in the United Kingdom in 1988, and since translated into several languages.

It describes the changes in the happy life of a married couple, Harriet and David Lovatt, as a consequence of the birth of Ben, their fifth child.

When David Lovatt meets Harriet at an office party, they both immediately fall in love. They both share the same conservative outlooks, which they perceive to be a rarity in the London of the 1960's.

The two marry and purchase a large house in a small town within commuting distance of London. The couple both intend to have several children, a wish frowned upon by the rest of the family. By the time they have four children, two boys and two girls, their house becomes a center of joy not only for them but for all their relatives and friends who come and visit.

This continues until Harriet has a fifth, wildly dysfunctional child, Ben. Her painful pregnancy with him marks the beginning of the misery and suffering that this child brings to the whole family.

تاریخ نخستین خوانش: روز شانزدهم ماه آگوست سال2016میلادی

عنوان: فرزند پنجم؛ نویسنده: دوریس لسینگ؛ مترجم: مهدی غبرایی؛ تهران، نشر ثالث؛ چاپ سوم سال1393، در208ص؛ موضوع داستانهای نویسندگان زیمبابوه تبار بریتانیا - سده20م

رمان «فرزند پنجم» نوشته‌ «دوریس لسینگ» با ترجمه‌ جنابان «کیهان بهمنی» و «یاسین محمدی» (چاپ پنجم سال1393، در208صفحه)، از سوی انتشارات «افراز» نیز چاپ شده است؛ رؤیا چیزی است که آدم‌ها به آن احتیاج دارند؛ رؤیایی برای زیستن، رؤیایی برای جدا شدن از مشکلات و دغدغه‌ های روزمره، و پیوستن به آینده‌ ای که روشن و فریبنده است؛ می‌تواند به حقیقت بپیوندد و یا توهمی از سوی صاحبان رؤیا باشد؛ «هریت» و «دیوید»، زن و مردِ کتاب «فرزند پنجم» بر خلاف فرهنگ عمومی، و باورهای خانوادگی‌شان تصمیم می‌گیرند بچه‌ دار شوند؛

نقل از متن: «چند تا بچه می‌خواهید؟»؛ «دیوید» گفت: «خیلی.»؛ «هریت» گفت: «خیلی»؛ و جواب شنیدند: «مفتِ چنگ‌تان» پایان نقل

برای به واقعیت پیوستن این رؤیای دونفره، خانه‌ ای بزرگ خریدند، با سبک «ویکتوریایی»؛ خانه‌ ای با اتاق‌های بسیار، برای فرزندانی که قرار بود خیلی زود خانواده را، به جمعی شاد و سرخوش، تبدیل کند؛ راستش لازم نیست «فرزند پنجم» از راه برسد، لازم نیست اتفاقات پشت سر هم بیفتند، و «هریت» و «دیوید»، در آن خانه‌ ی درندشت‌شان با تجربه‌ هایی دردناک روبرو شوند، تا خوانشگر بفهمد گاهی همه‌ چیز «استعاره» است؛ «بِن»، پنجمین فرزند خانواده، بیش از آن‌که به کودکی شبیه باشد، هیولایی کوچک است، که می‌خواهد تمام زندگی را یک‌جا نابود کند، تنها اگر زنجیر محدودیت‌هایش باز شود؛ به‌ سادگی نخ نازک زندگی پاره می‌شود، به‌ سادگی رؤیاها، جای خودشان را به کابوس‌ها می‌دهند، و روزهای خوش به تصویری خاک گرفته، و رو به فرسایش، تبدیل می‌شود؛ «فرزند پنجم» می‌تواند استعاره‌ ای باشد، از مشکلاتی که جامعه‌ ی مُدرن با آن مواجهه است؛ چیزی ناخوشایند، با شمایلی عجیب و غریب، در ارتباط زن و مرد، در ارتباط والدین و فرزندان هست، که شاید در خارج از چهارچوب داستان، و در بافت واقعی زندگی به چشم نیاید، اما اعضای خانواده از آن در عذاب‌ هستند، چیزی که رابطه‌ ها را سرد می‌کند، مادر را از فرزندانش دور، و پدر را به کار بیش‌تر و بیش‌تر می‌کشاند

این پدیده‌ ی نامبارک انگار به قسمتی از زندگی خانوادگی رسوخ می‌کند، آن‌چنان که مهربانی فلج می‌شود، لبخندها تُهی، و لحظات خوش، برای همیشه به گذشته‌ های دوردست می‌پیوندند؛ همه کنار هم‌ هستند، باهم‌ هستند و تنهایند؛ «هریت» در قسمتی از کتاب می‌گوید: (احساس می‌کنم از زمان تولد «بِن» دیگران ملامتم کرده‌ اند؛ احساس می‌کنم همیشه طوری با من رفتار کرده‌ اند که انگار جنایتکارم)»؛ «فرزند پنجم» ناهنجار است؛ افسردگی‌ و اضطراب و فشار روحی دارد، مشکلات و ناخوشی‌های به بار آمده در دنیای متمدن است، که ناخواسته به دل خانواده شبیخون می‌زند، و رؤیای باشکوه «هریت» و «دیوید» در مقابل‌شان هرز می‌رود و تکه‌ تکه می‌شود؛

روایت «دوریس لسینگ» در کتاب «فرزند پنجم» ساده و دلچسب است؛ یک راویِ سوم شخص گهگاهی به ذهن شخصیت می‌رود، اما فاصله‌ ی خودش را با خوانشگر نگاه می‌دارد؛ «دوریس لسینگ» که در سال2007میلادی برنده‌ ی جایزه‌ی «نوبل ادبیات» شدند، کتاب دیگری دارند با عنوان «بن در جهان» که جناب «مهدی غبرایی» در مقام مترجم، این اثر را قسمت دوم رمان «فرزند پنجم» دانسته اند؛ «دوریس لسینگ»، نویسنده ی کتاب «فرزند پنجم» در «کرمانشاه» به دنیا آمده است؛ این نویسنده ی «زیمبابوه» تبار «بریتانیایی»، یازدهمین زنی است که توانسته جایزه ی نوبل ادبیات را به دست بیاورد؛ مادر «لسینگ» پرستار و پدر ایشان افسر ارتش استعماری «بریتانیا» بود، که پس از بازنشستگی به علت جراحت در جنگ جهانی اول، در بانک شاهنشاهی ایران در «کرمانشاه» کار میکرد

تاریخ بهنگام رسانی 30/01/1400هجری خورشیدی؛ 11/09/1400هجری خورشیدی؛ ا. شربیانی
Profile Image for Robin.
473 reviews2,489 followers
June 16, 2020
Motherhood - a horror story

This book starts off with two young 20-somethings, David and Harriet, who find each other at a work party in the late 1960s. They're deliriously happy to find each other, having always felt different and somewhat condemned for their differences. They marry, and buy a huge Victorian house with many rooms to fill with the many children they plan to have. Their families are disapproving. Why so many children? How will you support them? What's the rush? Aren't there more important things to do with your life, anyway?

They are determined though, to fulfill this dream of a big family and vibrant family gatherings. And they do it. In almost as many years, they have 4 kids (yes, this is a horror story....). Their families, who were disapproving and finger wagging, almost have to eat crow. They all convene in the Victorian mansion for riotous holiday celebrations, and they LOVE it. They have to admit, this life is warm and joyful and fulfilling. Everyone's having a great time.

Until... well, you guessed it. Child #5. From conception, it is a nightmare. The pregnancy alone is torture, and a sneak peek into life afterward. Child #5 is nothing like the rest of the family. Child #5 does scary things. Child #5 systematically destroys the family.

This powerful novella had me terribly uncomfortable during the entire reading. After, I thought a great deal about it. In 150 pages, Doris Lessing captures the impossible positions motherhood can present. A mother is often damned if she does, damned if she doesn't. Take care of one, destroy the family. Let go of one, destroy herself.

Often Harriet feels like she is being punished, treated like a criminal. Is she being punished for going after her own happiness? For wanting an excess, too much? Is this a general indictment for overpopulation? Or is she ultimately punished for the abandonment of her first four children? Or, perhaps, worse still, is all of this in her head - the result of an inexplicable maternal ambivalence?

Lessing knew a thing or two about these things. After her first marriage ended, she left her two oldest children in Rhodesia for their father to raise, but took the youngest with her to England. At first, as she is quoted as saying, she felt "brave" for doing this, and pursuing her writing and political passions. But maybe by 1988, at the time of this publication, and towards the end of her life, she felt the full effects of her decision. Felt like a criminal. Felt like she had destroyed a perfectly good family. Saw that she didn't know when to quit when she was ahead.

Whatever you see in these pages, the impossibilities and catch-22 situations within motherhood will stand out, and gouge you.

Comparisons can be made to Lionel Shriver's terrifying We Need to Talk About Kevin. Maybe even, in some respects, Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby. As with all good horror stories, you will be chilled as you turn the final page. As with all good literary fiction, you'll be thinking a long time afterwards.
Profile Image for Orsodimondo.
2,099 reviews1,587 followers
May 19, 2021
DOBBIAMO PARLARE DI BEN


Pablo Picasso: Maternità nel campo, 1901.

Harriet e David si incontrano a una festa aziendale e immediatamente cupido scocca la freccia. L’amore è ricambiato, i due sono presi e rapiti l’uno dall’altra.
Hanno la fortuna di condividere, oltre l’immediata attrazione, anche principi valori sogni e progetti di vita: per loro, tutto questo è rappresentato da una famiglia numerosa, sei figli è l’obiettivo.
Siamo all’inizio degli anni Sessanta e la coppia si direbbe muoversi esattamente contro corrente, o in ritardo sui tempi.


Pablo Picasso: Maternità (madre e figlio), 1901.

Per realizzare il sogno, dopo le nozze comprano una grande casa vittoriana in campagna dove la famiglia potrà crescere prospera e felice. E, ovviamente, rinunciano a qualsiasi contraccettivo.
I primi quattro figli arrivano in serie, due maschi e due femmine. Le cose vanno per il verso giusto. Entrambi i lati della famiglia, i parenti tutti si stringono festosi ed entusiasti intorno alla coppia, anche generosamente disponibili ad aiutarli e supportarli economicamente.


Pablo Picasso: Madre e figlio, 1903.


Harriet dopo le prime quattro gravidanze senza sosta vorrebbe rallentare un attimo, prendersi un periodo di pausa. Ma invece rimane incinta per la quinta volta.
E questa volta è molto diversa dalle precedenti quattro: il bambino nella sua pancia si agita e scalcia come volesse demolirla. Lei finisce col sentirsi isolata: nel loro patto di matrimonio, David e Harriett non avevano contemplato dolore, cupore, malinconia, tristezza, preoccupazione.


Pablo Picasso: Madre e figlio, 1903.

La creatura che nasce è strana alquanto. E infatti, è più facile definirlo ‘creatura’ che bambino: ha pelle e occhi di colore strano, giallastro. Sostanzialmente, è brutto. Inoltre, Ben, questo è il nome scelto per lui, si dimostra presto aggressivo e violento, aspetto che non aiuta a farsi amare.
Quel nido d’amore e gioia familiare è più che turbato: è letteralmente sconvolto. Si allontanano tutti, compresi i primi quattro figli, che si trasferiscono a vivere altrove.


Pablo Picasso: Madre e figlio acrobati, 1905.

Per salvare la situazione David decide che ben va internato in un istituto. Ma Harriett comprende che quel luogo è in realtà una tomba, un lager di sterminio per diversi e deformi che vengono eliminati a furia di maltrattamenti - è dove la normalità si difende dall’anormalità - contro il volere di David – e finirà col perdere anche lui – Harriett torna a riprendersi Ben. Il quinto figlio.


Pablo Picasso: Famiglia di acrobati con scimmia, 1905.

Doris Lessing ci conduce in un territorio inquietante e disturbante dove non sembrano esistere verità cui aggrapparsi, fari che illuminano il cammino. È brava a lasciarci in sospeso, appesi a questa sua storia tra la fantascienza e la distopia per quanto nell’assoluta contemporaneità del suo setting.
Ben sembra arrivato da un altro spazio, un alieno, oppure da un altro tempo, una creatura primordiale: come se dagli albori della vita sulla terra fosse stato scagliato in piena fine del XX secolo (1988 è l’anno di pubblicazione). Compie gesti che sembrano pura brutalità primitiva, e mettono raccapriccio, generano orrore. Impossibile non pensare al Frankenstein di Mary Shelley.


Pablo Picasso: Maternità, 1905.

Harriett si accartoccia nel senso di colpa, incapace di capire chi sia realmente Ben, quale sia la sua vera natura, piombata dalla preistoria o venuta da un altro mondo.
Lessing è brava a sfatare il mito della maternità come realizzazione di una donna; è brava a mettere sulla griglia la società del tempo, edonistica, ma anche convinta di essere la migliore, l’apice dell’evoluzione. Al punto che qui e là ci si chiede se sia Ben che si comporta male, o sono quelli intorni che lo considerano malvagio.


Pablo Picasso: Madre e figlio, 1907.

O ancora, e forse più, sarà mica la società che lo spinge su quella china? Ben ha animo selvaggio, o è la mancanza d’amore che lo emargina e rende violento? Chi tra i due elementi è più spietato?
Lessing lascia aperte porte e finestre senza porgere appigli, stimolando ipotesi mentre genera dubbi e domande.


Pablo Picasso: Madre e figlio, 1921.


Pablo Picasso: Maternità con mela, 1971.
Profile Image for Cecily.
1,094 reviews3,832 followers
May 2, 2022
The core dilemma

This is a horror story exploring what happens when a monstrous child is born to a perfect family. When there is no way for everyone to be happy and safe, who must sacrifice what, how does one choose - and what happens when the parents can’t agree? It is essentially a variant of the Trolley Problem, where you see a runaway train at a fork in the track, with people at risk on both: you can either do nothing, knowing five people will die, or actively divert it so that just one person dies.



The plot is simple and told chronologically by an omniscient narrator: Harriet and David want to fill their enormous house with a huge family. They have four beautiful blond, blue-eyed, rosy cheeked children in quick succession, in between hosting popular house parties at Christmas, Easter, and the summer holidays. Then Ben is born.

If I had let him die, then all of us… would have been happy.

There is no supernatural aspect, though it never feels quite plausible either: not the original idyl (living “happiness in the old style”, counter to “the greedy and selfish sixties”), nor the horror of Ben, and certainly not the degree to which some things are ignored by those around, including the authorities. That made me increasingly question the accuracy of Harriet’s fears and observations, whilst also feeling bad about not believing her, when she already felt so judged.

She wanted to be acknowledged, her predicament given its value.

What is wrong with Ben?

I don’t think Ben is a subhuman “throwback”, changeling, troll, or alien as Harriet often says. Although he’s hyperactive and shares some traits with autistic people, his issues are not so easily defined.

• Is he slow and misunderstood, irredeemably evil, or just not as loved and loveable as his siblings?
• Is he as horrendous as Harriet claims?
• To what extent is she to blame - should we instead ask what’s wrong with her? (But despite her fear and revulsion, she goes to great lengths to protect him, to the detriment of herself, her husband, and their other children.)

The covers of various editions imply radically different answers:



There are also difficult questions about what punishments, containment, and threats are justified for the wider good. It may be useful to compare this with We Need to Talk About Kevin; I’ve not read that, though I saw the film several years ago.

Differing (dis)abilities

Ben’s existence fractures relationships all round, and forces choices that no parent wants to make. How can you be “fair” when your children have hugely different needs? How do you cope with not loving your own child… with sometimes wishing he were dead?

I had my only child when I was 29, so when my routine scans (sonograms) were fine, I was not offered testing for Down’s or anything else (though we could have insured against a disabled child). The odds were good, it would be our child, and we’d do our best. However, it would have been different if we already had a child whose life could be hugely and detrimentally affected by the birth of a severely disabled sibling. That was long enough ago that I read this with understanding, but the safety of distance. This is not a book to read if you're thinking about having a(nother) child any time soon!

While Ben arouses fear, his cousin with Down’s Syndrome (referred to as a “Mongol child” more than once!) is generally loved - except by her own father (“distressed by physical disability” and “appalled” by her) and Harriet (who assumes Amy is a symptom of an unhappy marriage).

Parental sacrifice and children’s sense of entitlement

Most parents make sacrifices for their children, but how far should they go? “A mother is fed by watching her children eat” is a guilt-inducing phrase I sometimes heard in childhood when money was tight: my mother would treat us to something nice to eat, while eating toast herself.

“‘It’s either him or us’... ‘He’s our child.’ ‘No, he’s not… well he’s certainly not mine.’”

Harriet and David make sacrifices for different combinations of their children, but their passive sense of entitlement towards their own parents is staggering: they choose a huge house and family, but can only do so because David’s father pays for it all, and Harriet’s mother becomes a full-time childminder and skivvy. Both parents have other calls on their money and time, but go largely unthanked.



When?

It spans twenty years, from the mid 60s to around the time it was published, but despite the odd mention of rising crime, it always felt stuck in the 60s, and certainly not like the late 80s I remember.

Nevertheless, I’m glad I read it. It’s quite brutal, but raises profound questions, without suggesting answers. However, the little I've read about the sequel ensures I won't go on to that.

Quotes

• “There was an ugly edge on events: more and more it seemed that two peoples lived in England, not one - enemies, hating each other, who could not hear what the other said.” Written of 1972, but applies today.

• “His taking possession of the future in her” - making love, intensely.

• “She knew the cost, in every way, of a family.” [Harriet’s mother, Molly.]

• “When he bent to kiss her, and stroked Luke’s heat, it was with a fierce possessiveness that Harriet liked and understood, for it was not herself being possessed, or the baby, but happiness. Hers and his.”

• “Her heart was hurt as it would be for one of her own, real children.”
• “Ben was Harriet’s responsibility and his was for the children - the real children.”

• “When she put her arms around him, there was no response, no warmth; it was as if he did not feel her touch.”

• “She had been drained of some ingredient that everyone took for granted.”

Inspiration for...

This novel is part of the inspiration for Claire Oshetsky's brilliant, raw, and disturbing novel, Chouette, which I reviewed HERE.
Profile Image for Stela.
909 reviews345 followers
January 22, 2022
It was the summer of 2013 when a friend of mine, who is an English teacher, asked me how I would teach “The Fifth Child”. Since I knew nothing about the book nor had it, she sent me a PDF copy and here I am, after an unsettling but fascinating reading, asking myself the same question: what key of lecture could I offer? Because it is, undoubtedly, worth reading. A little masterpiece about the fragility of happiness and the illusion of the security provided by family, as the author herself said in an interview:

''I do have a sense, and I've never not had it, of how easily things can vanish. It's a sense of disaster. I know where it comes from – my upbringing. That damn First World War, which rode my entire childhood, because my father was so damaged by it. This damn war rammed down my throat day and night, and then World War II coming, which they talked about all the time. You know, you can never get out from under this kind of upbringing, the continual obsession with this. And after all, it's true. These wars did arise, and destroyed a beautiful household with all the loving children.''

This “sense of disaster” becomes Ben, the main character of this urban gothic story that shows not only how we get used to our misfortunes but how we even protect and nourish them.

I remember Freud said somewhere that society is not comfortable with happy families, because, being strongly attached to one another, they tend to cut themselves off from others. This is why civilization imposes all sorts of taboos, laws, customs and other restrictions that ultimately separate the members of the family.

Is Ben the embodiment of war and other evils society continuously pours over the individual? Or is he truly the embodiment of all unhappiness man tries to fight during his life? Or maybe the unknown that irrationally frightens us so much we need to reject it without really looking into it?

For here he comes, like a bad apple, in a family that, despite all pessimistic predictions, was living the dream, in a big house full of family and friends, sheltered until his arrival from the “storms of the world”. Here he comes, the “Neanderthal baby”, the troll, the goblin, the gnome, result of who knows what primitive gene lost in his parents bodies. Not wanted, not expected and definitely not loved, he insinuates into the Lovatts’ life, changing it forever:

'The trouble is, you get used to hell,' said Harriet. 'After a day with Ben I feel as if nothing exists but him. As if nothing has ever existed. I suddenly realize I haven't remembered the others for hours.'


It is how misery strikes, isn't it? Like an incurable disease, it appears in the middle of joy, takes over little by little until it becomes the absolute king of a brand-new sorrowful kingdom. Why? Because it is more natural for mankind to suffer than to be happy. Or so Harriet thinks:

She said to David, 'We are being punished, that's all.'
'What for?' he demanded, already on guard because there was a tone in her voice he hated.
'For presuming. For thinking we could be happy. Happy because we decided we would be.'


And once acquainted with grief, it is almost impossible to separate from it. That could explain why Harriet cannot bear the thought of Ben trapped in an institution that would ultimately kill him, even if she had wished him dead many times, and goes and rescues him, thus completing the family breakdown:

Around and around and around: if I had let him die, then all of us, so many people, would have been happy, but I could not do it, and therefore...


So, to return to my previous questions: is “The Fifth Child” about the vocation of misfortune which seems to be the fate of humanity? Or is it about the external pressures, social, political, even medical ones that would determine this misfortune? In other words, is the evil within us or outside us? Moreover, do we indulge in our suffering, wherever it comes from?

Because, unfortunately, one thing is certain: there is always a Ben somewhere waiting in the background, ready to spoil things. Beware if you can!
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,081 reviews67.8k followers
February 14, 2020
The Selfish Gene Pool

My mother had six live births. The eggs didn’t get any better as they went on. Neither did the quality of family life. I don’t know if she actually wanted all those children or was forced into her situation by religion and a high libido husband. In either case it wore her out and I think she came to regret imposing all these fairly strange people on the world.

It seems to be unacceptable in much polite company to point out that the urge to procreate is as necessary to constrain as any other. I think this is Lessing’s point. The desire for children, for a family life filled with one’s offspring and the emotional satisfaction of their presence is as subject to excess, perversion, and rationalisation as any other.

Let’s face it: there are no good reasons to produce children. They are expensive, emotionally and physically exhausting, destructive of the relationships which produced them, a continuing drain on the world’s (including the grandparents’) limited resources, and they, of course, are likely to contribute to an indefinite extension of this situation into an infinite future.

And all that is the best case scenario. Nature and nurture combine forces not infrequently to produce people who actually don’t contribute an iota to the world’s happiness quotient. The odds are that the more children one has the more likely there will be a genetic, psychological, or behavioural defect in the bunch. There are orders of magnitude more homicidal criminals than potential Nobel laureates in the world. As I said: the eggs don’t get any better. Neither does their care.

Neither happiness, nor any other sort of ‘fulfilment’ is an inalienable right of any human being. The pursuit of happiness may be sanctioned by law and democratic tradition, but this is merely license to invent fantasies which are almost always Ill-conceived and require the sacrifice of others in order to be achieved. They are the stuff of neuroses, economic externalities, and inevitable disappointments. Pursuing happiness - particularly by creating a large family - is a mug’s game. The only winners are psychiatrists, self-help gurus, and divorce lawyers. And, although smug, none of them are likely to be happy either.

I’m betting that if transhumanism ever really becomes a thing, the machines will be savvy enough to eliminate reproduction entirely.
Profile Image for هدى يحيى.
Author 8 books15.8k followers
April 17, 2018
الشعور القوي الذي غمرني هو
التعجب من نيل دوريس ليسينج نوبل

فالرواية أقل من عادية
ولم أشعر معها بأي ابداع تقريبا

ليست سيئة نعم
وربما للمؤلفة كتب أهم
ولكنني لست متحفزة للقراءة لها مجددا

سيطر علي شعور ربما يبدو فكاهيا
شعرتُ بأنني طوال القراءة أجلس أمام شاشة تلفاز
وأشاهد فيلما تليفزيونيا مملا قليلا وقديم
وفيه الترجمة تظهر بالبنط العريض جدا كما كان الحال في افلا�� التسعينات

باختصار لا أرشحها لأحد
Profile Image for Zoeytron.
1,016 reviews652 followers
July 18, 2020
All Harriet and David Lovatt ever wanted was a happy marriage and a big house filled with children.  For a few years, things played out their way, four great kids, and a house that virtually glowed with warmth and love.  It was not until Harriet's next pregnancy that darkness begins its inevitable descent.  The fifth child produced seems to be a different breed altogether.  What better hiding place than inside a mother's womb?  I'm sure all babies are different, but this one is unsettling in the extreme.  Very strong and with a voracious appetite, he frightens his siblings and causes a rift between his parents that may be impossible to mend.
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,523 reviews1,769 followers
Read
March 18, 2021
This is a story about a woman who gives birth to a troll.

It is neither charming nor delightful.

It reminded me of Peter the Great, although he didn't give birth to a troll.

You know he founded the City of St.Petersburg and designed it to have lots of canals because the Dutch were the most modern nation and they had lots of canals - though naturally it wouldn't have been expressed like that, perhaps he would have said that his new city required an appropriate transport infrastructure to meet the needs of an Imperial capital and to so future proof it against the inevitable challenges of the 1720s. Then he founded a Kunstkammer - a collection of curiosities, this you can still visit at your leisure in exchange for a small sum of money and see such odd things as the skeleton of an eight legged sheep - in life according to the reconstruction it only had six, two of the legs were undescended, which I imagine was pretty uncomfortable. In addition to this there are lots of deformed babies picked in jars, on some days an extra chamber is opened where in exchange for a little more money one can see even more deformed babies. Some are simple to describe - just conjoined, and unable to survive in anno domini 1713 or whenever precisely it was, the rest are just much weirder.

Lessing here takes that kind of idea that there is human variation that we see around us and we are used to, but that there is also a degree of variation that we maybe know about like say the so called Elephant Man which is a little beyond our comfort zone and then if that can exist then why not something else, much nastier and stranger - in fact a troll or something very much like it.

Reading this story again I noticed that it took a long time until the fifth, the troll child of the married couple came into the story, a third of the way - and then that as pregnancy - which as you might expect is unpleasantly trollish.

Given the long slow build up of couple formation, dwelling acquisition, family breeding, I might be tempted to believe that Madame Lessing initially was minded to write something more conventional but then decided to move off at a tangent. Nor do I think I would have pegged this as the work of a nobel prize winning author, yet at the time there is an impressive ease and grace in which she manages the timeline from the late 1960s to late 1980s without awkwardness or any sense of clumsy, abrupt jumps.

The story ends with the fifth child - the troll one an adolescent, the mother (we experience the story mostly from her point of view) not so much frightened by the child and what it might do so much as accepting that he is capable of any violent act.

Through this troll-child Lessing toys with the idea of a literal criminal recidivism, not a criminal under class, but a criminal under species, genetically asocial, satisfied and aroused through violence.

Perhaps the long build up with its careful class details, and one could say the troll child is the physical manifestation of their selfish snobbish aspirations or a humorous retort to them, sharpens the eventual threat of how a simple desire to fill a big house full of children can be destroyed through some genetic reversion to the mean, bringing forth not simply the Neanderthal or Denisovian hidden in our genes but something far bleaker.

Certainly walking up the road even in sunlight I was extra jumpy when I heard unexpected sounds on the other side of the hedge.

Uncanny, unheimlich.
Profile Image for Fabian.
933 reviews1,525 followers
December 31, 2019
Hey, ya know that ugly devil baby-in-arms in that one impressionable scene in "Passion of the Christ"? Yeah, well, he's here, here in the middle of this taut, mesmerizing novella, growing up and ripping his innocent family to shreds.

Well, he says "Hi."
Profile Image for Justo Martiañez.
342 reviews126 followers
September 2, 2022
4/5 Estrellas

Creo que esta noche he tenido pesadillas con Ben.....pobre Ben o maldito engendro. Gran creación que despierta en el lector toda clase de sentimientos encontrados.

Brutal como transforma la escritora un comienzo bucólico, donde retrata la construcción de una familia por parte de una pareja al estilo tradicional, casa grande, muchos hijos, todos felices como conejos reproductores, un poco jetas, porque una gran parte de este edificio idílico y un poco de cartón piedra, se mantiene gracias a las ayudas monetarias y directas (arrimando el hombro) de gran parte de sus familiares, que ya no saben como decirles que paren la máquina de hacer hijos, aunque también disfrutan de las reuniones de la gran familia feliz.

Sin embargo, llega Ben, el quinto. Pocas veces un personaje me ha impactado tanto. En algún párrafo hasta te da pena. cómo es y lo que le hacen...en otros sientes sus ojos verde-amarillentos sobre ti y quieres salir corriendo.....y el idílico y fastuoso edificio familiar se viene abajo de forma estrepitosa....¿Porqué no pudieron parar en el 4º?

4 estrellas porque, sobre todo el inicio, no está a la altura del trepidante derrumbamiento familiar central.

Vamos, que me he apuntado el siguiente donde cuenta cómo le va en la vida a Ben. Por las críticas parece que no está a la altura de este, pero me pica la curiosidad.
Profile Image for Luís.
1,791 reviews430 followers
January 20, 2023
Harriet and David work in the same company. She is a graphic designer, and he is an architect. They love each other, decide to marry, and promise to have many children.
Their choice stopped on a massive building in the suburbs of London. Pregnancies follow one another quickly in a joyous house, always complete, family celebrations bringing together the couple's parents and brothers and sisters, each attracted by the harmony. But, unfortunately, the birth of Ben, the fifth child, arrived too soon after the last delivery, tossing the lives of all into discomfort as powerful as indefinable. Declared sane by doctors, Ben does not look like a classic baby and combines incredible strength with great violence. Moreover, his mother can not help but compare him to a troll.
This novel is reminiscent of Rosemary's baby; even though Ben is not an emanation of the Devil, as in the story of Ira Levin, he is transforming family life into hell. With a crescendo of tension, the Fifth Child plunges us into a world all the more frightening than it is a commonplace: that of maladjusted children, poorly accepted in a conservative and individualistic society where the animality of Ben, present in any man, can only express itself through violence. A beautiful story by Doris Lessing about the myth of the perfect family.
Profile Image for Hanneke.
315 reviews309 followers
November 18, 2022
Doris Lessing submerges us in a true nightmare of a story in ‘The Fifth Child’. You could call this a horror story, but I did not detect anything supernatural about the fifth child, Ben. Ben is just a horrifying being and a total destructor, although he cannot be blamed for being who he is. He was born an alien creature. Ben was already acting in a horrific way in his mother’s womb. Harriet and David, his parents, had an exceptionally happy family life in their big manor house with their four children and lots of family visiting. Nothing but fun, sunshine and happiness. Then Ben arrives and plummets their sunny existence into a terrific nightmare. Doris Lessing was such an exceptional writer and she manages to convey the horrific atmosphere of the desintegration of the family very convincingly. This novel is certainly one of her exceptional books as far as I am concerned. Warning: pretty upsetting tale.
Profile Image for Doralyn.
61 reviews
May 2, 2008
This novel was disturbing on so many levels. It was supposed to have started out with this great couple who had all these wonderful family ideals, until the fifth child came along who was really tough to take (and basically a commentary on society's reaction to such a different child). However, I never saw the couple as having a great marriage. The only testament to any sort of greatness I guess would be their coupled desire to have a lot of children. Simply because their house was constantly filled with free-loaders, didn't imply to me that their family was so great.

And when the fifth child came along, where was everyone? Not only where the parents willing to throw this child away, but everyone suddenly disappeared right when they could have used some support. This book is a horrible example of family.

The other main thing that bothered me was the parents conclusion toward the end of the book that their fifth child's nature was due to some sort of latent paleolithic genes. They kept referring to how he was a caveman (in all seriousness, this is what they thought). They also equated this cavemanness with not being human (so, in effect, to them, early humans, weren't human at all). They constantly thought of their child as not human.

I thought perhaps this was written before autism was really heard of, but it was written in 1988. This kid seemed to have a classic case of autism and, instead of seeing specialist after specialist to get him help, the parents just succumbed to his tyranny in their home.
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,357 reviews2,286 followers
September 5, 2021
** Spoilers **

Luke explained. "They're sending Ben away because he isn't really one of us."

What a slippery, open-to-ambiguity, little story this is! I've seen review after review that reads this as a horror story of the perfect family destroyed by a monstrous child, with the inevitable gestures towards We Need to Talk About Kevin and Rosemary's Baby. But, to me, Lessing is doing something far smarter and more politically-engaged here: Harriet and David may not be narrators but we do see the story via their viewpoints, especially Harriet's. The extent to which we choose to share their values, worldview, implicit politics and, by extension, their understanding and placement of Ben will inflect, even control, the way we either accept and are complicit with their story, or resist and destabilise it, finding an altogether different narrative nestled within the book, one congruent with Lessing's own unashamedly left-wing politics.

From the second sentence of the opening page, Harriet and David are skewered: they are both 'conservative, old-fashioned, not to say obsolescent', and while David is 'better' than Harriet in class terms (his father builds yachts flitting around from the Riviera to the Caribbean, of course David was educated at fee-paying schools), the two of them agree they want to have hordes of children... five...six...ten. Accordingly, and despite David's mediocre salary, they buy a huge 3-floor house (plus loft conversion, natch!) in the suburbs of London with six bedrooms, 4 rooms on the floor above and 'an enormous attic' - and David's yacht-building father picks up the entire mortgage, as well as dropping off additional cheques throughout the story. And when Harriet has four children in four years and can't get on with any of the local 'help' because they're all 'lazy', she co-opts her mother as a home help (unpaid, of course) till even her mother rebels: 'I'm your servant... you're very selfish, both of you. You are irresponsible'.

And if that weren't enough to make Lessing's views of her characters clear, there's their whole response to Harriet's sister's Down's Syndrome baby:

Harriet said to David, privately, that she did not believe it was bad luck: Sarah and William's unhappiness, their quarrelling, had probably attracted the mongol child - yes, yes, of course she knew one shouldn't call them mongol. But the little girl did look a bit like Genghis Khan, didn't she?

This is made especially heinous since Amy is probably the nicest, sweetest, most loving, unjudgmental and accepting character in the book and the others could learn much from her. William's rejection of his daughter ('he was distressed by physical disability, and his new daughter, the Down's Syndrome baby, appalled him') is a foretaste of David's own disowning of his son about to be born:

"He's a little child," she said. "He's our child."
"No, he's not," said David, finally. "Well, he's certainly not mine."


The point, then, is that in no way did I ever buy into the surface scenario discussed in the blurb and review after review that this is a perfect family about to be blown apart - they are reactionary, obnoxious, selfish, irresponsible, entitled and quite vile. Harriet's sisters and mother call them out at times, especially in Angela's mocking asides on how rich people live, but it's subtly done.

Into this privileged world comes baby Ben: rough, tough, huge, loud, and insatiably hungry. And I'm going to put the next chunk in spoilers.

So, for me, this isn't a supernatural horror or Gothic story but instead one which looks at how a family turns against its own, creating an alienated individual who is the scapegoat for all kinds of ills. Is it also an allegory of 'class war'? Lessing was a member of the Communist Party for years, and though she did get disillusioned with, especially, Stalinism, she never lost her social activism or sense of social justice. Is Ben, then, an avatar for the forces that might, from the inside, disrupt bourgeois values, standards and mores? Harriet and David were already described as 'obsolescent' from the opening page - is this the harbinger of their demise? Or the start of their fight-back? Is this, I wonder, a covert response to the Thatcherite government which, in 1988 when this was published, had been in power for eight years?

A marvellously cunning and ambiguous piece of writing, short on pages but rich, dense and - I'd suggest - far more socially engaged and politicised than might at first appear.
Profile Image for Alejandro González Medina.
107 reviews4 followers
May 2, 2021
Hasta la lectura de esta novela, no había leído nada de Doris Lessing. El argumento descrito en la contraportada de esta edición me fascinó y decidí darle una oprtunidad, intrigado por lo que prometía ser una incursión en el género de terror de una premio Nobel.

Terror, terror... no llega a ser, pero no deja de ser una novela con una atmósfera inquietante y sombría que, en ciertos pasajes, recuerda (aunque más comedida) al Lovecraft en estado de gracia, ese que conjeturaba sobre el origen del horror indescriptible, o al Henry James de "Otra vuelta de tuerca". Lessing hace uso de un estilo sobrio, elegante, casi minimalista a partir de la segunda mitad del libro, y es de agradecer porque favorece una lectura acompasada a los sentimientos de Harriet, la protagonista.

Respecto al contenido, se presenta en forma de fábula moral, aunque con muy diversas interpretaciones. La temática general puede incluirse dentro de las preocupaciones y reivindicaciones del feminismo de primera y, sobre todo, de segunda ola: los papeles de los cónyuges en la vida matrimonial, la maternidad numerosa bajo sospecha de frivolidad, el sentimiento maternal como debilidad o falta de sentido común, la presión social ante el modelo de familia heteronormativo y la familia como institución alienante. Además (y aquí es donde creo que la autora se marca un tanto bastante significativo), "El quinto hijo" es la novela de la alteridad radical. El Otro se presenta en su faceta más incomprensible y, por ende, más salvaje. El personaje de Ben, el quinto hijo, es un ser brutal, carente de cualquier rasgo de humanidad, y es precisamente esa carencia la que dificulta las relaciones materno-filiales hasta el punto de ir minando progresivamente la unidad familiar... ¿o esta también es una fantasía?

Un libro muy interesante, muy fácil de leer, aunque difícil de asimilar en todas sus posibles lecturas.
Profile Image for Flo.
197 reviews23 followers
November 2, 2022
No matter the intentions of the author or the expectations of the reader, this book is doing its own thing. It is such a rare experience to meet a book like this one, that it was hard to stop reading. 

It starts as a black comedy, with two "eccentric" conservatives ( Ha. That's a new one) who instantly decide to get married and make a lot of children ( ten they want). :))

And for the first four, all things are ... normal.

However, the fifth child brings out the horror.

"She fantasized that she took the big kitchen knife, cut open her stomach, lifted out the child."

And then in the second half, you ask yourself who is the monster.

There aren't easy answers to find here.

This was my first Doris Lessing. She knows what a journey is all about. Saw an interview with her and discovered that she wanted to write about goblins in this one. :))

I appreciate that my reading life can still find such ... delightful surprises.
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book1,637 followers
April 16, 2022
Edgy and nearly perfect fiction about what it's like to raise a sociopath. Until the last pages where the book got a bit preachy and deterministic I felt that Lessing left me jittering unpleasantly between thinking that Ben, the "fifth child," was born this way, irredeemable, vs. that he was the victim of bad parenting and lack of love and even of abuse...which is of course the same duality any parent (in particular, mother) is judged by when raising a child who doesn't seem quite normal; who doesn't seem quite moral. Disturbing in the best possible way.
Profile Image for Carmo.
629 reviews459 followers
October 10, 2020
” Certo dia de manhã cedo, alguma coisa fez com que Harriet saísse da cama e entrasse no quarto do bebé e ali encontrou Ben equilibrado no peitoril da janela. O peitoril era alto, só Deus sabia como é Ben chegara até ele, a janela estava aberta, num instante ele teria caído. Harriet estava pensando: “que pena eu ter chegado", e recusou-se a ficar chocada consigo própria.”

Que mãe desapiedada é capaz de pensar numa barbaridade destas?
A mesma mãe que irá salvar este mesmo filho de uma morte certa, contrariando a restante família e assumindo um fardo que não quer, mas não pode descartar.
Doris Lessing ousava escrever sobre temas que beliscam a maioria das pessoas e este é mais um deles.
Que família está preparada para aceitar a vinda de um filho deficiente mental /físico profundo?
Quem tem alicerces para suportar um impacto desta natureza na estrutura familiar e social?
E a questão proibida nestas circunstâncias: o que fazer com esta anomalia da natureza que constrange toda a gente à volta?
As interrogações são mais que muitas, e nem aqueles que passam por este drama terão respostas satisfatórias.

Este livro não se lê por prazer, é antes um murro na nossa consciência; incomoda, mas não se pode ignorar, e talvez nos faça olhar de forma mais benevolente para os pais com filhos a quem a natureza não favoreceu.
Profile Image for Puck.
624 reviews294 followers
October 23, 2018
Readers, beware of novella’s: they might look short, but their stories can haunt you for days.

Harriet and David Lovatt’s life couldn’t be happier: a good marriage, a big house perfect for hosting parties, and four healthy and charming children. Sure, it’s a lot of work for a couple both 26 years old, but this is the life they dreamed off!
Yet when Harriet gives birth to the fifth child, Ben, every happy dream disappears. “Neanderthal Ben” is too strong for his age, always screams, and the little emotion he shows is violent and cruel.
As Ben grows up, Harriet slowly start to doubt herself: who or what gave she birth too?

‘The trouble is, you get used to hell,' said Harriet. `After a day with Ben I feel as if nothing exists but him. As if nothing has ever existed. I suddenly realize I haven't remembered the others for hours.’


Yes: the mother compares her baby to hell. This might not be the horror you expected*, but the (family’s) reaction to Ben is both horrifying and painfully realistic. While her husband wants to lock Ben away, Harriet wants to keep him home…yet that decision might cause more harm than good.

But what is wrong with Ben? You want to pick sides, but Doris Lessing cruelly leaves the decision about Ben’s nature up to us. This reminded me of Rosemary's Baby – not because Ben is the anti-Christ – but because both books feature mothers slowly losing control of their life thanks to a child.

In both stories, this loss of control leads to a bitter ending, but in The Fifth Child it’s more heartbreaking, more tragic than terrifying. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, but is the hell real, or just a mother’s fear? A judgement of society?
I love (horror) stories that haunt you like that. If such a book sounds appealing, I say pick this up and decide for yourself what's going on.


* = although the scene in the Children’s institution might change that...
Profile Image for Mariel.
667 reviews1,038 followers
April 7, 2013

She felt rejected by him. They had always loved to lie here feeling a new life, greeting it. She had waited four times for the first little flutters, easily mistaken but then certain; the sensation that was as if a fish mouthed out a bubble; the small responses to her movements, her touch, and even- she was convinced- her thoughts.


But what about me? I've been shot. Go on without me, save yourselves. Ooh aah it hurts, like a spoon or a papercut that irritates your mind into the beyond. Listen, take this review from my pocket over my frozen heart... Give it... gasps.... I don't have much time... Don't let it bash anyone else over the head with it's magazine article case study depthless void of empty characterizations that zip along like the latest autotuned hit to the next check on a form. Why the flipping hell did they HAVE to have six to ten kids? (Ten if someone was suspected to think the original six was too many. People who were essential to foot the bill, naturally.)  Lovey dovey eyes that see into a shiny mirror. Don't let the constantly pregnant wife and her automatically possessive husband suck you into their weeks long Easter house parties of freeloaders hitched to their shag carpet ride on daddy's money and her mommy's retirement time. The glow of brand new furniture under layers of visiting butt sweat and baby vomit. Poor Ben was born into the dreams of spit out and consume. Poor Ben calls himself Poor Ben. He must have heard someone say it. It is getting life off on someone else's foot. He must have seen something, sensed something to have kicked and screamed with a "This is wrong" and not ask for better. I said better but there was nothing else here. He did come from a family who expected gloating contentment of the variety of I really couldn't give two shits. Housewife stuff if you were really angry about the sexual revolution. For no good reason. People were doing it and yeah I was researching for a period drama about issues. I saw a whir of ugly faces in a stream of going through the motions of this is the dream. Kill me before they get to tupperware parties. The boredom nearly did it. Their hopes meant nothing to me. What do they have to lose? 

So the wife-mother Harriet collects Ben out of the institution he is stuck in to die. It's like when your dog is going to "live on a farm somewhere with room to run" without the "room to run" part or the "farm". It's cold as the clinical shit baby Ben is covered in when Harriet lays her brooding (the egg laying definition) on him. I didn't know, I didn't think. I don't want to know, I don't want to think. It all happened so fast of and this happens next boringly flippant narration. The four kids whisper together. They were cute babies to show off five pages ago. We want Ben to be gone. Ben means nothing but an obstacle. An object of stone for their unfeelings. The side of the lucky to be born under a better sign, before the difficult pregnancies got more difficult. No body really knew what they wanted. I didn't know the kids. Theirs were a blurred face of get on the next bus out and marry the first person you see. They will all speak in the language of The Fifth Child that is whining or bragging grunts of hear what you expect to hear before anyone has said a word. The only difference in Harriet is that she turns her head when what she expected to hear is not what she had heard, though she is still afraid to look (that's important) and doesn't live. They weren't a family at all. Harriet may be a woman too weak to be good enough for a child like Ben. The other children may have felt unsafe in their own homes. I read a baby locked behind bars in a lonely room until he became the snarling animal in the corner they bought him for sight unseen. Yeah, there's a story in there and it kills me. But I didn't know them any more than the passing story related third hand about a man in Fla who fucked his wife into fourteen kids (he would yell at her "Flossie!" for back room sex with a house full of people). She dies and the fourteen kids go to the orphanage. The next wife gets four kids. The Fifth Child knows these people as well as that. It's creepy and sad and about complete strangers. Shouldn't there be more than passing judgement on strangers to this? It's not an issue or product of the times when it is your life. Maybe that kind of heartless removal speaks to others in a societal morse code I can't understand. Although a disturbing number of people on the review sites read this as a book about an evil little baby boy. I guess the message! anvils missed them, somehow. I don't get anything out of reading shit like that from strangers on the Internet either. I don't want it. That kind of thing kills me and I have no letters to home about that. That's so lonely. Harriet sees Ben and translates a monster stare looking for others like him. Where's the dying breath to understand?
Profile Image for Roula.
474 reviews133 followers
October 28, 2018
Ενα μικρο(σε εκταση) αριστουργημα για τα ψεματα που λεμε στον εαυτο μας προκειμενου να απαλλαγουμε απο τις ευθυνες μας , αλλα και για τον τρομακτικο εγωισμο των ανθρωπων που προτιμουν να φτασουν στα πιο ακραια σημεια συμπεριφορας προκειμενου να μην θολωσουν την εικονα της "οικογενειακης ευτυχιας" που εχουν φαντασιωθει..με θυμωσε, με στενοχωρησε, με προβληματισε οπως οφειλει να κανει καθε σημαντικο βιβλιο.
Profile Image for Mariana.
382 reviews1,646 followers
May 20, 2021
3.5!
Bueno... ¿Quién es el villano aquí? ¿Es realmente Ben un changeling? ¿Harriet y David son pésimos padres? Creo que nunca encontraré respuestas satisfactorias a estas preguntas, pero sí reafirmé el miedo que me da la maternidad en todas sus etapas. RESPECT a todos aquellos que gestan y crian un hijo.
Profile Image for Julian Worker.
Author 32 books338 followers
April 29, 2022
A selfish couple called David and Harriet buy a big house and intend to have eight children. Luckily for them the husband has a very rich father and the wife has a doting mother. The rich father pays their mortgage, the doting mother looks after the children. There are big family gatherings with step-fathers, step-mothers, sisters, cousins, nephews, and nieces. This is a privileged family indeed.

Then the fifth child arrives, a goblin called Ben. Everything changes.

Harriet and David can't control Ben, he murders a dog, a cat, and tries to kill his brother Paul. This is where the story becomes truly ludicrous because all this 'bad behaviour' is tolerated until it gets too much and Ben is carted off having broken up the family to a strange kind of children's hospital up't north where it rains all the time and there are moors! How stereotypical is that?

And then the author expects us to believe that Harriet goes up't north to get the goblin back and the hospital allows her to take him away and there are no repercussions for this unlawful behaviour of the selfish mother from the social services. Honestly, how far can credulity be stretched?

I won't tell you the rest, apart from the fact that if you read this story you will be expected to believe that a loving mum and dad would allow their retarded goblin son to spend his time with children ten years older than himself and pay them to look after their son as he's taken to the seaside on motorbikes.
Profile Image for Thomson Kneeland.
43 reviews3 followers
April 27, 2013
This was my introduction to the writing of Doris Lessing; I had high hopes for the book but was sorely disappointed. The writing was pretty unengaging for me, though not poor. The plot was ridiculous in content, though perhaps acceptable as a sort of "unmagical realism"; completely unrealistic and unbelievable, along with two dimensional characters suitable for allegory only. Perhaps the book stands as an indictment of conservative 1950's family values, white picket fences, women staying home to work and raising 5 children...but written in 1988, the book seems a little bit moot as a social critique. If Ms Lessing intends to explore sociopathy and psychopathy, then she would do well to explore the inner life of the characters. Instead we have 17 years of time compacted into 150 pages, no compelling plot and practically a synoptic history of events throughout those years with a scattering of little explanatory stories. I will give Ms Lessing another shot with her famed The Golden Notebook, as perhaps this writing style is atypical for her. But I wouldn't recommend this to anyone. Go read Frankenstein or Martin Amis or Iain Banks.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
Author 1 book140 followers
October 31, 2019
“We just wanted to be better than everyone else, that’s all. We thought we were.”

Well this was an interesting little story about the perils of parenthood. We have Harriet and David, two people who feel old-fashioned in the world of the 60’s because they want to have a lot of children. They have the audacity to think everything will turn out well—that they deserve to have what they want. But life isn’t like that. You just don’t know.

“Then something bad happened.”

It took me a little bit to get over my disappointment at the ending. I really wanted some big metaphoric event to occur. But the author doesn’t answer any questions here—she only asks.

Doris Lessing lived through two world wars. One question I think she’s asking is what do we do about the violence, the primal ferociousness from our animal nature that is obviously still present in our culture … in our DNA?

What do we do?
Profile Image for Carmel Hanes.
Author 1 book127 followers
June 21, 2020
As a devoted Trekkie from the age of 13, I've particularly valued the original Star Trek because of the social themes laced within the creative visions of sci-fi. A race of people, each with faces that are equal measures of black and white, who have destroyed each other because the black and white are on opposite sides of the face is much more than a fanciful representation of an odd culture in decline. A moving rock that kills ceases to be an enemy when we discover it is protecting offspring that have mistakenly been "mined" as something valuable to other races. For me the best of sci-fi is that which bends our credulity without breaking it; that which blends the impossible with the possible in ways we can recognize.

The Fifth Child did not read as a sci-fi to me, but that is what the author claims it to be. Lessing reports that the inspiration was something akin to a fairy tale where a child from another world lands within an otherwise "normal" family, and she explores the possible outcomes as this fifth child changes the dynamics and nature of this family. In retrospect, I can see these elements in the story, but my own background and life heavily influenced my interpretations as I read it before knowing her intention.

The story I read was one experienced by many families, where the ideal of family life is significantly challenged by the reality of birthing unique human beings. The first four children appear to meet all the romantic expectations held by the parents, and then comes Ben, who was difficult from the moment of conception. He doesn't fit in. He struggles, and his struggles ripple out to cause disruption to his parents, siblings and the extended family. We watch as that disruption leads to difficult choices, and remedies, which further isolate and alienate family members from each other. But we also see Ben achieve a degree of success in unlikely places, and find a way to belong, even if not in ways envisioned by his parents (and may or may not be healthy).

Beneath the fairy tale quality of where Ben came from and what's "wrong" with him are threads of parental expectation and disappointment, the struggle to deal with truly challenging children, the path to belong somewhere, the gray dance between loving our children and simultaneously being horrified by them, acceptance versus rejection, and the necessity of giving up on our dreams sometimes. It might even have hinted at how our own hidden darkness could affect how we see and treat our young.

This seemed much more real and possible than I usually find in sci-fi, but it did fit the overall bill of providing a fanciful blend of the two. I think my experience of knowing many challenged and challenging kids (and what their parents experienced) colored my read on this one. To others, it simply appeared somewhat horrifying. To me, it mirrors the real life of many. A somewhat simplistic tale, told without adornment, but offers a lot to think and talk about.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,161 reviews9,024 followers
May 6, 2011
For anyone thinking of reading this slender novel by such a reknowned writer I say ... devote your time instead to this little movie from 1974 which takes the same theme but pushes it to the VERY LIMIT




That's what Doris Lessing SHOULD have written.

Note : prospective parents may be advised to steer clear.
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