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Doris Lessing: The Fifth Child

The plot of this novel is quite simple. Harriet and David are your happy 1970s bourgeois English couple. They have their Victorian house, four lovely children, lots of friends and relatives with whom they are on good terms. All seems idyllic, apart from occasional glitches like her sister’s Down’s syndrome child. Then, by accident, Harriet gets pregnant again. She has a difficult pregnancy and a difficult birth and produces Ben. Ben is a monster. He causes grief for everyone – his parents, his siblings and others, shattering the idyll. The novel is about how the family copes (or, rather, doesn’t cope) with Ben. Harriet is torn between defending Ben and helping her other children, who all hate Ben. She chooses Ben but at a huge cost to the rest of the family. Critics have read all sorts of things into this novel. What does Ben stand for? Lessing herself has said that he stands for nothing. She is merely telling a story. It is a very disturbing story but, as always, very well told.

Publishing history

First published 1988 by Jonathan Cape