the fifth child

A few weekends ago while visiting my cousin, I saw The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing sitting on her bookshelf and I remembered it being on some “best of” lists around Halloween last fall as a great horror book. She loaned it to me and I read it in just a couple of days.

Harriet and David are newlyweds in the 1960s, and know already that they want a big family of 6–10 children. In anticipation of this, they buy a huge house in the English countryside, and regularly host weeks-long holiday parties for their parents and extended family. Early in their marriage, Harriet and David welcome four beautiful, healthy, perfect children. Not long after their fourth is born, they are surprised with another pregnancy, which they didn’t expect so soon and is unusually difficult and painful for Harriet. Their fifth child, Ben, is described as monstrous, goblin-like in appearance, with piercing yellow eyes, stout in build and strong beyond comprehension, and from the beginning exhibits sociopathic behaviors. David is disgusted with Ben and refuses to touch him or acknowledge parentage. Harriet is generally blamed for bringing the boy into their lives, not only by her husband but also by their parents and siblings. Ben proves burdensome, dangerous, and terrifying to everyone and everything he encounters, save for a few adolescent neighborhood boys.

Foreboding in the beginning, the story becomes more hopeless and doomed with each page. I get why the family was disapproving of Harriet and David desiring so many children (money issues), I found their harsh judgement rather hypocritical and rude, not only because ultimately it is none of their business but also because they freely took advantage of the couple’s generosity in those long holiday parties. And then I was really offended by David’s attitude after Ben was born. Poor Harriet! I felt so badly for her. She wants to love Ben and help him, tries to, but ultimately can’t, honestly through no fault of her own. She is dismissed as hysterical by her doctor and family when she tries to get support for her obviously mentally and emotionally disturbed child. Instead of rallying around Harriet and getting Ben some appropriate help, they banish him to an asylum. Things only get worse from there.

Only a slim 133 pages, The Fifth Child packs a big punch and leaves you with lots to think about. While I do think this book runs in the vein of horror, it’s more of a commentary on often taboo subjects such as society’s general judgmental nature of parenting and mental healthcare.

Read from April 28 to 30, 2013.

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