This disturbing novella by Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing was very different from what I expected it to be. The cover of the Paladin paperback edition is illustrated by what I immediately recognised as an enchanting picture of an impish young child by Mervyn Peake. As well as being one of my all-time favourite authors (and if you haven’t read the extraordinary Gormenghast trilogy, Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone, you really should) Peake was also an exceptional artist and illustrator. This drawing (probably of one of his sons) was done may years before this book was published, so quite how it came to be used to promote this novel is a bit of a mystery. Unsurprisingly, the picture is utterly inappropriate, as I will explain in a moment, but the combination of the cover, the price (£1 in a charity book shop) and some residual guilt that the only books I had read by Lessing was her disappointing ‘Golden Notebook’ and the more recent ‘The Good Terrorist’ made the purchase a no-brainer.
So to the novella itself. David and Harriet Lovatt, unconventional in their conventionality, meet, marry, and start a family in their huge house in the suburbs. All is bucolic and happy until Harriet falls pregnant for the fifth time. At this point the novel takes a very dark turn – Ben, her child is a violent, disturbed creature.
“He was not a pretty baby. He did not look like a baby at all. He had a heavy-shouldered hunched look, as if he were crouching there as he lay. His forehead sloped from his eyebrows to his crown. His hair grew in an unusual pattern from the double crown where started a wedge or triangle that came low on the forehead, the hair lying forward in a thick yellowish stubble, while the side and back hair grew downwards. His hands were thick and heavy, with pads of muscle in the palms. He opened his eyes and looked straight up into his mother’s face. They were focussed greeny-yellow eyes, like lumps of soapstone.”
(Someone must have seen the Peake drawing, and thought “that’ll do”)
Ben has all the makings of a psychopath, and in caring for him his family is torn apart. His condition is never diagnosed – his doctors and teachers refuse to acknowledge he is anything other than a little slow – and while the possibility of it being a form of autism isn’t considered in the novel, his condition is contrasted with that of a cousin with Down’s Syndrome. This refusal to name Ben’s condition allows the reader to project the ills of the world onto his broad misshapen shoulders – he represents whatever we want him to represent. Increasingly Harriet comes to speculate that he is a genetic throwback, a troglodyte or goblin, which is a horrible example of the stigmatisation of the disabled which may have been acceptable in the 1980’s but now seems barbaric, and which we rightly have come to reject in this century.
This book is hard to categorise. Certainly there are horror elements, and the book is sometimes marketed as a horror story. Equally, it is a commentary on child-rearing in modern society – Lessing seemed to be going through something of a ‘isn’t the modern world a terrible place’ phase, (compare the reactionary tone of ‘The Good terrorist’ for example – so the fact that Ben goes through school without learning how to read or write, and without his teachers really being concerned about that, is taken as an indictment of modern attitudes towards education. Law and order in society begins to break down and deteriorates throughout the novel, adding to the ‘things aren’t what they used to be in my day’ atmosphere.
There is an air of unreality to the novel which heightens the horrific element. The way Ben’s condition is portrayed varies wildly – although he is unwell enough to be consigned to an asylum he is also well enough to go through several years of school. Time flies past unevenly, and the whole family structure is funded by a rich yacht selling grandfather who turns up every now and then to write a cheque. The social commentary rarely goes beyond the clumsy portrait of doctors and teachers who blame Harriet for her child’s behaviour. The family portrait that initially promises to form the heart of the novel fragments after Ben’s birth, and the portrait of a marriage crumbling under the strains imposed by a disabled child are some of the most successful aspects of the book.
Overall, I thought that ‘The Fifth Child’ had more of the feel of an early or discarded draft. I feel Lessing really struggled to work out what she wanted to say with this novel, and in the end decided, like the novel’s cover illustration editor, ‘that will do’.