What a beautifully creepy novel The Fifth Child is. The story is pretty much straightforward. A young couple, Harriet and David, decide to move to a house of hotel proportions and have one child after another. Harriet and David have never been financially stable and have relied on David's well-to-do father for support. Things seem to go well with the family until the fifth child, Ben, was born.
All right, maybe the problem didn't start at Ben's birth but during the time Harriet was still carrying him in her womb. Ben was a difficult baby. Harriet often had to take sedatives just to keep Ben quiet inside her. Ben does appear to be an unusually strong baby. When Ben was born, nothing could have prepared the family of the sight of Ben. Besides being unusually strong for his age, Ben seems to resemble a Neanderthal, a monster in his parents and siblings' eyes.
If the other 4 siblings grew up with the attention (if not the love) of their parents, Ben didn't. Everyone seems to be afraid of him. Who wouldn't? When a cat and a dog die from strangulation, everyone thinks that it was Ben. And this thinking seems to be rightly so. Ben appears to act based on very primal instincts: eating ravenously, hurting people who view him with revulsion, and basically not communicating with any of his family. Eventually, the family decide to put Ben to an institution, even though Harriet has always been dead set against it.
Harriet does get Ben back after making an unscheduled visit and discovering that he has been drugged, fitted in a straightjacket, and covered in his own excrement the whole time he was at the institution. Harriet really tries to love Ben as much as she does her other children. But Ben's monstrous appearance and his wild disposition prevent her from doing so. She had to resort to having the teenaged gardener, whom Ben seems to like, watch over her son. It becomes inevitable that Ben becomes part of the gang of teenagers who terrorize parts of England.
Lessing shows us how one child can tear a family apart. The rest of Ben's siblings all leave for boarding school, as if wanting to put as much distance between themselves and their youngest. Harriet and David's marriage is never the same when they had Ben. Their house, which seemed to be their one prized possession, is eventually sold. And Ben only considers his friends as his true family.
I loved The Fifth Child. It's a horror novel that works on so many levels. On one level we see the family dynamic when one aberrant person joins the group. On another level we read about the horrors that Ben was capable of when he was growing up. And yet on another level we imagine the terror that could still happen, terrors brought about by Ben and his loutish friends. It's also a heartbreaking novel of loss, frustration, and what could have been. Somehow, I felt bad for the couple. I can't help but imagine how everything would've turned out for them if Ben hadn't been born.
Read this book if:
- You'll read anything that's won the Nobel.
- You like your horror "literary."
- You're the black sheep of the family.