Tuesday, January 08, 2008

"The Fifth Child" Doris Lessing

My younger sister claims my older sister asked for Doris Lessing books for christmas. So, since my older sister is pretty poor about providing a wish list, and she buys everything she needs, pretty much all she got was Doris Lessing books. However, she says there might have been only one she was interested in. Probably it wasn't this one. As my dad put it, when he saw me feverishly reading it on the 23rd, "Your sister is not interested in children."

But this book isn't really about children, anyway. It's about British society in the 70's, the shift in cultural values away from the traditional family, and young thugs and crime.

When I heard my sister wanted Doris Lessing books, I immediately ordered this one from Abe Books, because it was the Doris Lessing book on my list (not the one I provide my sisters and my dad every year at Xmas time, but the one I carry with me in case I find myself with a few spare hours in a library or something). I had read about it on some blog or other, shortly after DL won the Nobel Prize for literature. The reviewer said this was their favourite Doris book, and the sequel, "Ben in the World" was awful. I probably won't be reading that one, but I really liked this book. It's about 160 pages, and I read it in a sitting.

I must admit, I didn't find it very science fiction. Not that I expected a Nobel laureat to be all spaceships and made up drugs and stuff. The story is something like this:

Mom and Dad get married and buy a house too big and expensive for them, with the plan that they will fill it with children. At least six. And they're going along well, though they're probably having the children too close together, but their large extended family comes for holidays, and it's full of love and happiness. And then they have the fifth child. The pregnancy is horrible. The child is horrible. They try institutionalizing him, drugging him, all sorts of things. He kills animals. He attacks his siblings. He has to be locked in his room at night with bars on the windows. The whole family drifts away, including the older siblings. The story takes place over maybe 23 years.

I'm not really ruining the story by telling all that. It's not about what happens, it's about the ambiguity as to whether Ben has something wrong with him, or if he's just not like the rest of the family. I loved that the mother kept taking him to doctors, only to be accused of not loving him enough, and all the youths that he falls in with seem not to have any problem with him. He doesn't seem to be mocked because he's different, the way the story would be written now (or maybe I watch too many programs about the morbidly obese, or primordial dwarves, or people with rare bone conditions on television, where it's always made out that they're the nicest person in the world and everybody loves them -- so maybe being made fun of for being small or averagely fat, or whatever is just because you're on the edge of normal, not a freak, and Ben was a freak, because everyone except his family seemed to like him).

I mentioned to my team leader that I was going to read a DL book, and she said she could never get through them. My sister seems to be having the same experience. She would go to bed, and the next morning tell me she was on page 5, or 23, or 40. She found the prose too spare, I think. Not much description to skip over. Whereas I rather liked that.

1 comment:

Dirty Knees said...

Hey Robynettely,
In December, I read The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing. It's about whites living in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe}in the 1940s. I didn't like the main character very much but I don't think readers are supposed to LIKE her.

However, I liked the book well enough to start reading The Golden Notebook, also by Lessing. The main characters in this book (before the women's movement was really underway) are somewhat annoying too. Again, I think that's intentional. It's not "the most absorbing and exciting piece of new fiction" like it says on the book's cover, but it IS supposed to be Lessing's most important book, the one that spoke to many women in the 1960s.

Both books are mine so you can borrow them anytime.