She was at the end of a long ward, which had any number of cots and beds along the walls. In the cots were – monsters. While she strode rapidly through the ward to the door at the other end, she was able to see that every bed or cot held an infant or small child in whom the human template has been wrenched out of pattern, sometimes horribly, sometimes slightly.
Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child is sometimes described as a horror story. It’s not one written at all in the traditional sense, and for this reason it’s one of the most disturbing novels I’ve read for some time.
The problem I have, and perhaps the reason I’ve found this book so shocking, is that I can’t quite work out Lessing’s point of view. Take the quotation above, which is from a section about halfway through the novel. Harriet, the focal point of the story, has four healthy and what she (and perhaps Lessing) would call normal children. Her fifth child, Ben, is withdrawn, strange and potentially dangerous. Following a decision that may appear wild and unreasonable to today’s moral climate, Ben is placed in an “institution” – only rescued by Harriet in a moment of motherly guilt. It’s a situation (thankfully) difficult to picture now, although perhaps this was a feasible solution for nightmare children some thirty odd years ago (when the novel is set).
The Fifth Child is very effective in how Ben’s presence harms all around him, the bad seed of the family that causes his siblings to cower in fear. Lessing achieves this by her sparse and distanced writing style; and in this respect the novel is far superior to the leaden We Need to Talk About Kevin, a book that tackles much the same theme. However, the book continues to appear anachronistic; once Ben is rescued from the horrific institution he is handed to the part time care of a gang of unemployed youths who appear to have some calming influence on him. As a pre-school toddler he is allowed to roam freely with a group of young men and women. His parents simply want rid of him. How can we sympathise with their plight?
So Lessing impressed on one hand and let down on the other. Her writing style is chosen with great care, although the story goes in unbelievable directions. This novel affected me, although I didn’t find it the masterpiece I was expecting. I pitied Ben, as maybe I was supposed to do, but – influenced again by today’s moral climate where the media will seize upon stories of terribly abused children – the horror story is much more about a mother’s inability to deal with a misfit child.