Doris Lessing The Fifth Child
Paladin 1989 (1988)
A curious novella, this, and a horror story of sorts. Beginning in a Swinging-Sixties England — when David and Harriet meet and fall in love — it traces the story of how the couple attempt to set up a model suburban Happy Family in the face of disapproval from their own families who, irony of ironies, have their own problems of failed relationships. As Harriet and David produce four offspring one after another their large house becomes a popular venue for the extended family and friends during the long school holidays; with childcare help from Harriet’s mother and financial support from David’s father this otherwise unsustainable operation limps along from year to year. Until Harriet discovers she’s expecting a fifth child.
To say it proves a difficult pregnancy is a massive understatement. Lessing’s slow build-up emphasises the growing unease and near panic suffered by Harriet as she is pummelled from inside by the extraordinarily lively baby. When the child eventually emerges it proves the beginning of a prolonged nightmare for not only the nuclear family but also that extended community who were so tied up with the Lovatts every high day and holiday.
The whispered terms used to describe Ben emphasise his perceived nature — goblin, troll, changeling, Neanderthal — not only from his appearance but also his behaviour. He shows a propensity for menace, cruelty, maybe even violence. The exhausted Harriet wonders if he is a genetic throwback, a manifestation of atavism, but medics and social services wash their hands of responsibility. When familial pressure suggests he needs to go to a private institution Harriet reluctantly agrees; but will her primal maternal instincts kick in despite the evidence that Ben’s return to the household will threaten the mental and physical wellbeing of the others?
Horror often works best within the parameters of what is accepted as ‘normal’, and this is certainly the case here. This is not a tale to be enjoyed by expectant mothers or the sensitive: Lessing’s depiction of the suburban dream indicates that it cannot sustain such an abnormal stress. That we guess that all ends without resolution is not going to calm anybody’s nerves.
So what was Lessing’s purpose here? In a New York Times interview from 1988 — which I only read subsequent to the main part of this review — she candidly tells us that she hated writing it: “It was sweating blood. I was very glad when it was done. It was an upsetting thing to write – obviously, it goes very deep into me somewhere.” Later on she confesses that “I know where it comes from — my upbringing. That damn First World War, which rode my entire childhood, because my father was so damaged by it. This damn war rammed down my throat day and night, and then World War II coming, which they talked about all the time. You know, you can never get out from under this kind of upbringing, the continual obsession with this. And after all, it’s true. These wars did arise, and destroyed a beautiful household with all the loving children.”
So maybe the pain evident in the story is part of her attempt to write about the pain of a family being broken up by the obscenity of war. But it doesn’t stop it also being, in her own words, “a classic horror story.” Although we may have echoes of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1966) or even Ridley Scott’s film Alien (1979) the ideal home Lessing builds up only to knock down may with its different kind of resonance play on specific fears felt by the British middle class. A tale to be admired, maybe, rather than enjoyed.