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Ben, In the World: The Sequel to The Fifth Child Hardcover – July 25, 2000

3.5 out of 5 stars 35 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In a 1957 short story, "The Eye of God in Paradise," Doris Lessing brought to life a disturbed and disturbing child, a "desperate, wild, suffering little creature" who bit anyone who approached him. This child haunted not only the story's protagonist but the author. She first revived him in a powerful 1988 novel, The Fifth Child, pondering this strange offspring of an otherwise idyllic middle-class family. Who, or what, was Ben? Beast, goblin, throwback, alien, or a "normal healthy fine baby"? Lessing wrestled with these questions without ever quite managing to answer them.

She takes them up again, however, in Ben, in the World. Now 18, but looking 35, Ben is estranged from his family, forced to find his way in a basically hostile world. His yeti-like appearance invariably evokes fear or amusement. And his other habits (including an appetite for raw meat) hardly allow him to blend into the crowd:

He would catch and eat little animals, or a bird.... Or he stood by the cow with his arm around her neck, nuzzling his face into her; and the warmth that came into him from her, and the hot sweet blasts of her breath on his arms and legs when she turned her head to sniff at him meant the safety of kindness. Or he stood leaning on a fence post staring up at the night sky, and on clear nights he sang a little grunting song to the stars, or he danced around, lifting his feet and stamping.
After three fictional encounters, Lessing knows Ben well. She constantly intervenes to direct the reader's response to him, to the people who surround him, and to his (sometimes unlikely) experiences in Europe and South America. His misery and alienation remain the focus of the novel. Yet they are offset by the odd individuals who offer Ben their friendship--and finally, by his wayward quest to find people like himself. --Vicky Lebeau

From Publishers Weekly

When it appeared more than a decade ago, The Fifth Child, Lessing's powerful novel about a boy who was a freakish throwback to a primitive stage of existence, was justly praised as a shocking and memorable speculation about what happens when society is confronted with a human anomaly. This sequel continues Ben Lovatt's story, but with decidedly inferior narrative resources. Ben has run away from his upper-middle-class British family, who were humiliated by this genetic aberration. He is now 18, but with his fearsomely developed chest and arms, his squat and hairy body and his feral face, he appears to frightened observers to be a man in his 30s. Ironically, Ben himself is terrified of society. Unable to read, to handle money, to decipher even the simplest of situations, he is helpless, lonely and desperate. He realizes he must control the blood-red tides of rage that engulf his brain, lest he kill the adversaries who torment him. But in a series of lurid adventures in a plot that seems to have been made up in fits and starts, Ben is betrayed by nearly everyone. Only three women are kind to him: one is old and terminally ill, the other two are prostitutes. People who have power and money abuse him, notably an American scientist doing research in Rio de Janeiro, where bewildered Ben has been transported by a down-and-out filmmaker, who picked him up in Paris after Ben was used as a dupe in a cocaine smuggling operation. It's obvious that Lessing is making a social statement about how intellectuals acting in the name of art or science cruelly exploit simple people who can't defend themselves. The plot achieves bathetic melodrama in the deserted mining country of interior Brazil, where poor Ben, "knowing [he is] alone, used but then abandoned," meets his grisly fate and brings this soap-operatic story to its long-foreshadowed, tragic close. (Aug..-- alone, used but then abandoned," meets his grisly fate and brings this soap-operatic story to its long-foreshadowed, tragic close. (Aug.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (July 25, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060196289
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060196288
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,357,127 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I loved the Fifth Child. I found it powerful and provocative: as it focused mostly upon Ben's mother and how she dealt with her strange son, it delved deep into questions of love and duty, otherness, and societal bonds. Ben, the savage child, was a catalyst, a mirror held up to our own modern selves, in which we see the savage ways we treat what we fear and do not understand.
Sadly, Ben in the World is a great disappointment to me. Lessing decides here to follow Ben and see who he is, what he wants, and how he hurts. I think this is a mistake; what made the Fifth Child work was Ben as a mirror, a reflection of society. Here, that is so deeply diminished it's hardly worth mentioning. And it's hard to come to any kind of powerful discovery of who Ben is -- a yeti, a throwback, whatever, ultimately another lonely person in a lonely world.
The premise is flawed, the plot is weak and wandering -- there's no real reason why anything happens to Ben -- and in the end, it degrades to a hardly believable B-movie plotline (reminded me of that movie with Matthew Broderick and the monkey. Project X?)
Seems like I've heard a lot of people saying Ben is a parallel to Frankenstein. Hardly, unless you mean the monosyllabic Frankenstein of the movies. Shelley's monster was articulate, passionate, opinionated, and driven. He showed us ourselves at our worst. Ben is simply primal. At best, he shows us ourselves at our simplest.
It took some discipline to finish this book. I won't pick it up again, and I don't recommend it.
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Format: Hardcover
The Fifth Child was a terrific book. It brought up such concepts as separateness, lack of conscience, prejudice, etc. Ben, in the World is a worthy Sequel. In this book we get a more rounded Ben; it would have been so easy for Doris Lessing to write a book about a terrible throwback who didn't fit in anywhere. That is not what she did. Ben is very, very different, but he is human, he has feelings and, most of all, he wants to know where he "fits in" and why is everyone so different from him. Lessing took a good plot, that many pedestrian authors could handle, and made it into a great book by understanding the CHARACTER.
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Format: Paperback
Lessing wrote this book 12 years after her heart-rending novel "The Fifth Child". That book was written from a family perspective: the parents, their four children and other relatives about the wonderful life this family led until the unplanned, fifth pregnancy. Ben's birth weight was 5 kilos despite being a month early. And everyone stared at him, thinking, "what is this"? Ben looked like a baby from prehistory.
The traumatic pregnancy caused stress in the family, his birth aggravated tensions year after year... Ben learns some basics in school, but at home he has to be locked in overnight. He disappears from the family he disrupted so thoroughly and unknowingly, at age 15.
This novel presents Ben at the age of 18, hirsute, looking 35+ and immensely strong. He is always cheated out of his rightful pay in physical jobs, and barely survives in London, sleeping in parks or doorways. His oldest warm memory is his mother, who retrieved him from a deadly mental institution his father had consigned him to. And old Mrs. Gibbs, who took him in after an incident in a supermarket and taught him a few key things. And 17-year old prostitute Rita, who likes Ben's primitive lovemaking. She is controlled by Johnston, a criminal, who uses Ben successfully in a big drug deal, then abandons him in Nice, France.
So, 3 persons love Ben. The rest of the world not. The book then moves to Brazil. In my humble opinion, esp. the book's account of Ben's life in Brazil is poorly conceived, plotted, written and edited. Ben wins another friend, Teresa, but also kindles the ambition of people who want to exploit him in the name of science. Reader will understand Ben better, even feel pity for him, but the book is a disappointing sequel to "The Fifth Child".
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Format: Paperback
At times there seems to be a complete disconnect between "The Fifth Child" and Lessing's sequel. In the first installment, Ben is a monster, physically, emotionally, and morally; he is the epitome of inexplicable evil and an evolutionary "throwback"; he proves to be unredeemable. He seems barely human, and with Lessing offering hints of genetic alteration, perhaps he isn't. One dominant theme is how such a child tests the love of a mother; how can parents retain their love for a murderous criminal, an unrecalcitrant scourge?

But something has happened to Ben between the last page of the first book and the first page of this one. He now seems human, more like Frankenstein's monster rather than the nefarious hooligan we originally met. While the original novel is told mostly from the point of view of Ben's mother, here we see the world through his eyes. Yet the change in his essence is far more than what might be justified by a shift in perspective. Ben, who used to terrify and dominate those around him, now wants to find his way in a society that frightens him; he wants, perhaps, to find his own kind, even to be loved and petted. "You're a good boy, Ben,' one of his newfound guardians says, and "tears came into his eyes . . . expressing his love and gratitude for those words"--sentiments that would have been out of place in the first book. He has been broken in, turned from a tyrant to a victim, a source of pathos rather than horror--and what's missing is why. Or is Lessing simply trying to say we misunderstood Ben all along? Perhaps.

As a sequel, then, "Ben, in the World" seems off-kilter--almost as if we had missed an installment in the journey of Ben's life, and I think it very nearly upsets the themes and power of Lessing's original fable.
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