The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing has been on my to-read list for quite some time, but I had a difficult time finding it. I finally happened upon it at a second-hand book store. It’s a short book, only 159 pages, but it took forever to read because Lessing writes dense, intense prose. Every single word counts.

About The Fifth Child, Newsday said: “I’d be willing to wager that if she never wrote another word, it would be The Fifth Child– and not, say, her famous The Golden Notebook– that ultimately confirmed Lessing’s stature as a writer.”

Harriet and David meet at a party, fall in love, buy a house that is too big for them and immediately start to fill it up with children. Theirs is a seemingly happy family- extended at holidays with parents and siblings and over the years more children. Each of Harriet’s first four pregnancies are without difficulty. She seems one of those natural mothers, perfectly content to waddle around feeding whoever happens to be sitting around the table, doting and content.

But then she gets pregnant for the fifth time. Understandably, with four small children to cope with, Harriet is upset by this unexpected pregnancy- but it is more than that.

…she could not sleep or rest because of the energy of the foetus, which seemed to be trying to tear its way out of her stomach.

“Just look at that,” she said as her stomach heaved up, convulsed, subsided. “Five months.

The arrival of the fifth child, Ben, throws the Lovatt family into turmoil. The aftermath of his birth, his otherworldliness and Hariett’s attempts to cope make up the remainder of this book.

I can’t say that I loved The Fifth Child. As a mother, I certainly understood Harriet’s feelings, first of antipathy, later of remorse and finally of acceptance does get under your skin- but Lessing writes from a sort of detatched point of view and I never felt completely settled in Harriet’s world. Or maybe that was the point.

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