Thursday, July 2, 2009

Sandra, Book Review, *The Fifth Child, *Doris Lessing

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

Fiction,133 pages Hardcover

1988 UK

The idea of a mother not loving her own child seems almost taboo as a subject for a novel. Such feelings just aren't possible, or at least they're not natural or normal, are they? That's the general consensus. I wanted to read The Fifth Child because someone said it put them in mind of Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin. They are both about having a child who is difficult to love. Let's be honest, even their mothers find them impossible to love. They do try, very hard, over a period of long years, but ultimately admit their true feelings. Both books are well written and I thought at first they were quite different stories. Kevin, in Shriver's book is a teenager who's killed fellow students in a school shooting before the story even begins. Ben, the fifth child to a couple who planned a large family and celebrated each child's arrival, is odd and frightening and difficult to control from the day he's born. We follow his beleaguered mother and family from birth through to his teen years.

Then I realized that the only difference in the stories is whether they are related to us before disaster strikes, as in the case of Ben, or afterward, as with Kevin's killing spree. Each book hits tender spots and like most tragedies are not the easiest to read. But I think they both need to be read. The questions raised need to be faced-by everyone. Should these children be drugged? Is psychiatry or behavior therapy enough? Should they be "put away" in cases where they cannot be controlled? Then there's the issue of blame. People seem to need to point fingers when things go wrong. Are the parents, especially the mothers, ultimately responsible for the monstrous behavior of their children?

I'm glad I read these books. I learned things, empathy being the very least of these. I recommend The Fifth Child. My next review will be the sequel to this book; Ben, In the World by Doris Lessing

Posted by Sandra at Fresh Ink Books.


Rachel said...

OMG, I thought this book was misery encapsulated. It took days for the horrible feeling it gave me to finally leave. It's one of those books that really struck a strong chord, with regard to our obligations toward family and the idea of the expectation of love; I couldn't shake it.

That sentiment seemed like "hate" at first -- I remember telling a few people how awful this book was! -- yet considering it now, maybe I actually loved the book, but just couldn't bear the events within.

I haven't read the Shriver book, but am interested.

Sandra said...

*Rachel: Your strong feelings are understandable. How many women have lived with out of control and unlikeable children like that, with neither help nor sympathy from anyone? The Shriver book is very different in that it is told entirely from the mother's perspective after her son has been sent to prison for murder. It's not easy to read in places, but it's not quite the nightmare of the Fifth Child, perhaps because there is some distance between us and the "bad seed" as some have called these children. We Need to Talk is more about examining fault and blame, which usually the poor mothers have dumped on them. The book is one I think should be read by everyone. Because ultimately, we do all live just down the street from these kids who end up killing. If you decide to read the book, let me know what you think.

Jan in Edmonds said...

Not sure I could stomach The Fifth Child and am glad I read a couiple other of her books - The Good Terrorist and The Grass is Singing, both of which I recommend. ;-)

Sandra said...

*Jan: I loved the Grass is Singing too.