Friday, June 26, 2009

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing - Review

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, which I reviewed here. 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 beleagured 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 behaviour 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 behaviour of their children? I'm glad I read these books. I learned things, empathy being the very least of these. I highly recommended We Need to Talk About Kevin. I recommend The Fifth Child as well.
Have you read either of these books? What do you think? Are you averse to reading about this subject in a novel? If you've reviewed either of them please leave a link in the comments. I'd love to read it.
I welcome recommendations of good literary fiction.


  1. I've read The Fifth Child. I found it very difficult to read, because I empathised so strongly with the mom and the other children. It was so sad to watch everyone's life fall apart. I have no idea what I would do in that kind of situation, but I have a feeling I would put the kid in a home. For my other children, if nothing else.

  2. Wow! It is actually little to difficult to believe that a mother didn't love her child.
    But when I read your post, I seriously don't have answers to the questions you ask. it feels terrible to have a baby like that!
    I can't even think about it.

    I really need to get to one of them!

  3. I've read both of these books. I enjoyed both of them, but I found the Fifth Child to be a little unrealistic. Ben's behaviour was too extreme. I later found out that it is supposed to be a horror story, but I don't think it went far enough to acheive that, so I don't know what to think.

    There is a sequel called 'Ben in the World' which I am thinking of reading, but I'm not sure whether I really want to know what Ben gets up to as an adult!

    I also thought The Fifth CHild raised some important issues about siblings, which weren't covered in 'We Need to Talk About Kevin' Is it more important to look after 4 'good' children or the one naughty one?

    I'm pleased to see more people reading this book!

  4. I read this one in college, before I started my book blog. I honestly never really thought that it was meant to be realistic because Ben is so aggressive and almost unnatural from the start, but it does bring up those interesting questions. I don't know what I would have done with a child like that. I probably would have left him in the home if I had four other children that he was tormenting. I don't know though, it would be so sad.

  5. I started 'Kevin' on audio and had to give up. The reader's voice irritated me...or maybe it was the voice of the character. I've been thinking of getting a copy of the book to see if I feel the same way while reading.

  6. Wow, it sounds like that book gives you a lot to think about and a lot to discuss. I do think some children are very difficult to love and I also think it's something we're not supposed to admit. I think some people are just born that way - it's what they used to call the "bad seed."

  7. I haven't read this Lessing book, but she is not my favorite. I'm think I'm going to satisfy myself by reading everyone's reviews.

  8. I've read We Need to Talk About Kevin and felt so strongly for the mother..she intuitively knew that something was off about Kevin, whereas the father wanted to ignore all of it. Your comparison of The Fifth Child to Kevin makes me compelled to request it. Your review was excellent and I thank you for posting about this book that I somehow have missed!!

  9. Thanks for leaving the links to your reviews of The Fifth Child & We Need to Talk About Kevin. I was also pleased to see that someone else enjoyed We Need to Talk About Kevin as much as I did.

    Looks like I need to pick up The Fifth Child next!

  10. Hm. I'd rather not get into the "questions raised" aspect, but I'd certainly like to read this book. It seems fascinating and like a short, to-the-point read. Disturbing, yes, but interesting. I haven't read "We Need to Talk About Kevin"; I'll probably read "The Fifth Child" first but this is a difficult topic and I'd like to see how it's handled.

  11. Thank you so much *everyone for your thoughts and opinions! I haven't put together a review in months so I feel rewarded for pushing myself to do it.

    *farmlanebooks: I meant to mention the sequel in the post and I forgot. I just got Ben in the World from the library and will read it after July 1-so that it qualifies for my Awards III Challenge. I think I need a few days between books anyway before finding out how Ben fares as an adult!

    *JoAnn: I really think this is a story that you need to read for yourself. I can't even imagine having it read to me!

    If any of you read it I really would like to know what you think.


    after reading these books ...... nowadays i'm writing my BA thesis aboutseraching of a definiton of othrness in Doris Lessing's Fifth Child and Ben in the world...

  13. This was a great review, Sandra. The comparison between books is an added bonus for me after just reading your review of WNTTA Kevin!

  14. The Fifth Child is beautifully written, and with much insight.

    In my view, it's not Ben's fault that he is born different, he did not have a choice in the matter, therefore he is neither naughty or a bad seed.

    Should be have been left in the institution for the sake of the other four children? I say yes, because look at the tragic outcome when the mother takes him home, but then again, he was being pretty much tortured in that place...

    Lessing - one of the great minds of the last century!

  15. Thanks for this review, Sandra. I'm enjoying the book but it is a tough read!

  16. I thought We Need to Talk About Kevin was a brilliant though painful novel. I have enjoyed some of Doris Lessing's other work and will add The Fifth Child to my list. I need need a while to recover from Boy A and We Need to Talk About Kevin first, though. :-)



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