Doris Lessing and the Fifth Child

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I'm always glad when the Nobel Prize winner turns out to be an author I've actually read (and this happens less often than I like to admit). I've only read one Doris Lessing novel, 1989's The Fifth Child, but the book has stuck with me all these years.

The Fifth Child is a fable about a happy family. They have one child and everything is great. They have another and everything is great. Then another, and another. Now they have four wonderful children, but as they prepare to welcome a fifth several members of the family begin to suffer from unexpected feelings of dread. Indeed, the new baby arrives looking strangely primitive, almost monstrous, and he doesn't seem to be tuned in to the same sense of joy and togetherness that the rest of the family thrives on.

The story veers towards the disturbing and the tragic, and Lessing's message seems clear: there is an invisible line between blessed happiness and self-indulgent over-happiness, and this line is all too easy to cross. There's also the slightest suggestion that the fifth child is not actually intrinsically different from the rest, but rather that the perfect family found itself unable to extend its love to yet another newcomer.

I remember liking this short novel's dissembling ending, in which the creepy fifth child turns out not to be notably evil (as the family feared) but rather seems to fit right in with the larger British population. After all the fear and dread he inspires in his own home, the fifth child gradually leaves to join the massing rejects that make up the outside world, and ends up simply lost in the crowd.

I'm describing all of this from memory (and I hope I have the plot points right). The fact that the plot has stuck with me since 1989 must mean something. Congratulations to Doris Lessing, our latest Nobel Prize Laureate.

4 Responses to "Doris Lessing and the Fifth Child"

by danjazz on

The Nobel PrizeI'm sure Lessing ia fine writer; unfortunately I am unable to read her. And when I hear about the Nobel in Literature I think of the authors who were passed over (Nabokov, Joyce, Henry Miller) and some who were chosen instead (Pearl Buck, Sinclair Lewis).

by brooklyn on

I know what you mean. In general, I tend to avoid paying much attention to literary awards, which I often see as the wheezing gasp of a form (literary fiction) that has lost its commercial common sense (for more on this, of course, see my book pricing discussion). But there is something special about the Nobel Prize. And they've also made some really good minority picks along with some bad ones -- for me, I. B. Singer and Harold Pinter come to mind.

by Milton on

I agree with the both of you. Whether deserved or not, the Nobel has a glittery enough reputation that it can at least start discussions with its picks. Which is why I'm glad they picked Lessing, who's a brilliant writer and deserves to have more scholarship devoted to her. (Whereas someone like Roth tends to split the camp into two equally stubborn halves: "Roth is a national treasure" v. "What? You're insane."But then again, Joyce, Miller AND Nabokov? Ouch. Not to mention that they gave Kissinger the Peace Prize at the exact time when he was actively supporting some pretty hideous, homicidal regimes in Chile and Argentina. Oy.

by drplacebo on

A Literary CareerIs like a long stairway. Step one, get published. This sinks perhaps 99% of all that try. Then there is step two, make some money at it. Again, a lot are filtered out. From here, proceed to the awards level. Nobel Prize is in the rarified atmosphere. Final level? Being read 100 - 200 years or more after you are dead. Ok, so after all the brouhaha of this year's prizes, who is still read? As Levi has pointed out, literary fiction is right there at the crap shoot level of business. So why even try? I think that even in this crass consumer age that we live in, there are some things that are worth doing that you don't get paid for, in money anyway. Money and Fame are good, I suppose. But writing a really kick-ass sentence in the English language is its own reward. And if someone reads that sentence 100 years from now? Well you may not know it. Or you may. Maybe that's why some people write, despite the overwhelming odds.

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