The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

Though The Fifth Child is definitely dated by its lack of politically correct language, a lack central to the issues of the novel however, I ate this book up with frightening relish. David and Harriet are an unusually ordinary couple who long for domesticity, a large welcoming family home and lots of children. Their fifth child presents a challenge that rocks the foundations of everything they thought they stood for.

I couldn’t get enough of this family and the extended relations that brought class, education, money and disability into the mix. There were so many brilliantly evoked scenes where the unspoken bristled and that strange tense acceptance of family relationships, regardless of their faults that brews under the bottle cap waiting to explode, sat cleverly beneath surface discussion. It’s a very well observed book full of the complexities of relationships and family decision-making. The blame, shame, anger, resentment and exhaustion make for compelling reading. This is the book we should have been discussing in relation to the difficulties of loving an emotionally distant, unloving and violent child, not We Need To Talk About Kevin. But perhaps this novel has been forgotten, lost to the ravages of political correctness and to welcome psychiatric developments. Certainly the situation would provoke different handling in 2014 and I did find it difficult to listen to the mother describing her fifth child as a genetic throw back – though of course the expression of how people actually feel should never be censored and finding it difficult is a reaction the book certainly intends – and the care home he is sent to does anything but care for its charges. The issues, however, of how a family meets and deals with difference are fascinating and relevant. The novel is riddled with parenting dilemmas all crying out for discussion. Read it and lets have some of those discussions. I wonder, when the mother says she has given birth to a monster, if it possible to be more controversial?

Next week I’m reading The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills, followed by We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.

2 thoughts on “The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

  1. The Fifth Child is one of my all time favourite books, and I have read it many times. I have read that it was the forerunner to “Kevin”. It has always surprised me that it received so little attention, both at the time of publication or since. Doris Lessing is one of my favourite authors, and I consider The Fifth Child to be her best novel. I agree that it has some shocking elements and raises issues for discussions. Though I am in a family that is afflicted with severe mental handicap, so there is little to shock me about The Fifth Child. Though when I first read it, my sister was yet to give birth to to her two handicapped boys, and it still had a huge impact on me.

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