Critics were baffled by The Fifth Child when it went into major distribution in 1989. What did it mean? The question leaped off established press pages, reviewers mystified as any Doris Lessing reader about a novel which tells the tale of David and Harriet’s failure to successfully rear their five children. Clues are there, sprinkled throughout, even before Ben is born.
The couple consider themselves to be stodgy sticks in the mud during the height of the beatnik liberalization, but the suggestion lingers that their daydream of a big house with room for a large family might be as radical as promiscuity divorced from the consequences of pregnancy.
Lessing presses Harriet’s fecundity into succinct stages. Only the fifth pregnancy, an accidental slip which comes too closely on the heels of the fourth, receives the special attention steered into a credible, nightmarish fabulism. Little Ben is a powerful child who nearly kills his mother, threatens his slightly older sibling Paul with amputation, kills neighborhood animals.
Thus developed into an incredulous predator, Lessing attempts to offer a cautionary note on domestication through Ben‘s linear character, a theme she also tackles in The Memoirs of A Survivor, in much more insidious fashion.
Lessing’s death on November 17th, leaves much to celebrate in her multi-faceted life, her prodigious output within it, but her voice, so tinged with genius in its speculative pathways, will be irreplaceable and sorely missed.