Publisher: Harper Perennial
Cover Art: Henri Bureau/Corbis
Book Depository: Paperback*
Content Warnings: Violence; animal cruelty; disability discrimination; neglect
Harriet and David pride themselves on their normality, choosing to actively reject anything extraordinary around them. Meeting in a period of time when everyone else is obsessed with sex, drugs and counterculture, Harriet and David seek solace with one another starting with a meaningful look across a crowded room. The pair quickly get married and decide they want a big family with many children. Giving birth to child after child, the couple believe they have hit the jackpot in terms of happiness, refusing to take heed of other peoples’ opinions. However, one day the consequences of this carefree lifestyle catch up with them, coinciding with the pregnancy of the titular fifth child.
Browsing on Goodreads for reviews on this book after reading it left me somewhat disheartened, as I felt I had somehow missed something in what others have branded a masterpiece. There is no doubt in my mind that Doris Lessing was the excellent writer people claim her to be, but this book fell short for me in a number of ways. It felt as though the characters were a plot device, with no actual depth to them. Harriet and David, I felt, were supposed to be relatable with their difficult family situations, but I found them unbearably annoying. They were both incredibly passive, with the only solid action taken within the book being a heavily disturbing one. It felt as though there was a message there that was struggling to emerge, as a result of the two dimensional characters.
Furthermore, the descriptions of individuals with bodily differences made me feel deeply uncomfortable. I understand that, being set in the sixties, these attitudes would have been abundant, but there was no rebuttal to them. The message appeared to be that being different, either aesthetically or intellectually, means people will dislike you, and ostracise you. One part of the novel that particularly affected me in a negative way was when Harriet makes a trip to see Ben in ‘hospital’ and walks through the ward where the babies are. The descriptions of these children were horrific, suggesting that because they had bodily differences that they were somehow monsters. What made it even worse for me was that Harriet seemed to understand her attitude was wrong but continued to express horror and disgust. I felt there was room here for Lessing to address a wider social issue, but she failed to do so.
Many people who did enjoy the book have suggested it is making a social commentary on normality and the nuclear family. However, I didn’t see this when I was reading it – any commentary that may have been present was severely lacking in strength. It was almost as though Lessing had something to say, but was worried about fully committing to her opinions, which left a sour taste in my mouth, especially when it came to the aforementioned descriptions of bodily difference.
Lessing does create a sense of unease within the story that left me feeling sorely uncomfortable at times, which is testament to her ability as a writer. She uses character reactions as a method of creating conflict, making the reader confused about whose side they ought to be on. Is Harriet really losing her mind, or is Ben the changeling she claims him to be? Are the authoritative figures Harriet consults ignoring Ben’s issue or is Harriet completely making up an issue in the first place? The Fifth Child is almost genre defying in this sense and raises questions to which the answers are ever elusive. However, the story is never pulled together in any substantial way, and the ending feels somewhat mediocre. The story progresses from the sixties into the eighties, but there is never any progression of opinions surrounding Ben and his extra needs.
Despite not liking this book a great deal, I will not be abandoning Doris Lessing as an author altogether. I would be interested to see if I prefer the plot to her more famous novel The Golden Notebook, although I admit it is not at the top of my reading list following this selection.
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