cover image Fifth Child

Fifth Child

Doris May Lessing. Alfred A. Knopf, $16.95 (133pp) ISBN 978-0-394-57105-8

Lessing's latest novel is profoundly disquieting, not only for the story it tells but also for the message it conveys. Harriet and David, both conservative, old-fashioned and out of step with the liberated '60s, meet in London and know immediately that they are meant to marry. They buy a white elephant of a house in the suburbs and begin to fill its many bedrooms with children. Smugly determined to create a happy family, they unashamedly sponge off David's father and exploit Harriet's mother as an unpaid nanny. The first four children are adorable, but when Harriet becomes pregnant for the fifth time, she realizes that this baby is different. Painfully active in the womb, newborn Ben seems more like a monster than child; Harriet thinks he is a throwback to humanity's primitive forebears. Howling and raging, enormously strong, Ben inspires fear and horror. After he strangles two pets and menaces his siblings, David sends him away to an institution. Harriet is compelled to bring him home, but his presence irrevocably destroys family harmony. Ben eventually finds his niche with a group of dropouts who become thugs, thieves and muggers. There this horror story ends, and we are left with Lessing's indictment of those in authority who refuse to acknowledge responsibility for the violence inherent in mankind. More disquieting, in equating Ben with the lower and, she intimates, uncivilized strata of society, Lessing seems to assert a message of upper-class superiority. The implications of this slim, gripping work are ominous. 30,000 first printing; Literary Guild main selection. (March)