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The Fifth Child Paperback – May 14, 1989

132 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews Review

The married couple in this novel pull off a remarkable achievement: They purchase a three-story house with oodles of bedrooms, and, on a middle-class income, in the '70s, fill it to the brim with happy children and visiting relatives. Their holiday gatherings are sumptuous celebrations of life and togetherness. And then the fifth child arrives. He's just a child--he's not supernatural. But is he really human? This is an elegantly written tale that the New York Times called "a horror story of maternity and the nightmare of social collapse . . . a moral fable of the genre that includes Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and George Orwell's 1984."

From Publishers Weekly

A smug, conservative couple's fifth child (after four model children) inspires fear and horror. "The implications of this slim, gripping work are ominous," wrote PW. Lessing indicts those in authority who refuse to acknowledge responsibility for the violence inherent in mankind.
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (May 14, 1989)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679721827
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679721826
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.4 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (132 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #33,586 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

80 of 97 people found the following review helpful By wiredweird HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on December 29, 2003
Format: Paperback
I keep expecting Lessing to deliver a high quality of fiction. The quality is there, for sure, but I have to wonder about how much is fiction.
The elements are all too familiar in real life. An eager young couple sets about raising a family, and succeeds far too well. They can not support their own ambitions, whether measured in dollar amounts or in units of work caring for the children. The fifth child embodies a tragic accident of birth, and the fragile sitation implodes.
I don't mean to trivialize Lessing's story - even when I saw what was coming, I was hypnotically compelled to see it through, like the proverbial bird in front of a snake. (I've also avoided spoilers as much as I can, so vagueness is intended.) Taken in literal terms, the story carries a gut-wrenching sensation that's much too close to life.
One step above literality, I parented a "fifth child", or tried to. It wasn't my own spawn; it had been cast out by it's natural parent, the one that hadn't bailed out long since. My concerns for the child were twice the usual: I had a duty to prepare the child for the world, but had a second duty of protecting the world from that child. (That unpleasant period didn't last, and I was truly relieved at its end.) I did not need to grant Lessing very much poetic license to see the fact in her fiction.
If I let the immediacy of memory die down, I can read the story at more metaphorical levels, too. I suppose that many parents have high hopes, before the reality of a pimply teenager sprawls on their couch. Outside of parenting, I know that I have undertaken tasks way beyond my capacity, with some silly faith that things would work out somehow. The more I rely on faith, the worse the outcome.
I understand that Lessing has written a sequel.
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76 of 92 people found the following review helpful By Rouba El-Ali on August 7, 2005
Format: Paperback
I saw Lessing in an interview with Bill Moyer where she talked briefly about this book. When she was asked if she meant this or that by writing it, she simply said "No, you see, people always read messages and things, which I don't intend." "It's a story. I'm a storyteller." So I picked up the book... I loved it. I still do. I've read it for the third time this past weekend while traveling and enjoyed it. It is easy reading, yet it touches on so many subjects if you want to read too much into it. You can consider it from the "mother love" aspect or the way we dispose of things because they don't fit within our acceptable "norms" or the "troubled youth" or many other social issues... To me, the act of sending Ben to die is not any worse than the horrible acts Ben commits for being what he is.

I do not sympathize with David or Harriet. Not because they wanted too many children, but because they wanted to achieve their dreams on the expense of others. Harriet always needed her mother and David his dad. This was well known before they set out on their endeavor. So they consciously and selfishly continued their plan, until they were dealt a bad hand. They simply couldn't deal with it, they weren't prepared and it wasn't something that their parents can solve for them so their empire crumbled.

This book is different, unique and if you insist on having quality in what you read, this book delivers this as well. Hey you can even consider the genetic possibility of conceiving a Ben if you are into science fiction as well :)
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39 of 46 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 28, 1997
Format: Hardcover
I was surprised to find the "experts" listing "The Fifth Child" in a horror category. This is Lessing as we have come to know her style of bringing you into the characters' lives quickly. You find yourself passing judgements alongside the fictional characters.
Though the book starts as a dream of being different by upholding the traditional values of family, it quickly turns into an understanding of the dynamics of family and friends who, facing an unknown, turn their backs and pass judgement on a loving couple who soon turn their backs on each other to preserve each one's value system. A family torn apart by what is considered the "curse" of the fifth child to this family who wanted children to the rafters, is a family you can identify with. A discovery into the heart of human, and perhaps "un-human" experiences of dear Mother Nature. I read it in an afternoon and wanted more.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Craig Clarke VINE VOICE on April 8, 2010
Format: Paperback
The best horror fiction deals with the things that really scare us. Zombies, vampires, werewolves, and the like have their place. But what of the fear that comes from deep inside: questions like, what if your own child was a monster? Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing explores this kind of horror in her novel The Fifth Child, which I first learned of in The Book of Lists: Horror in a "horror novels that don't call themselves horror novels" sort of list.

David and Harriet Lovatt seem to have been made for each other. Their meeting was the proverbial "across a crowded room," and even their ideas on children match exactly: they want many. Even though their first four children (Luke, Helen, Jane, and Paul) arrive somewhat more quickly than anticipated, everything develops easily despite protestations from relatives that their family is growing too fast.

Everything changes, however, with the arrival of the fifth child. The pregnancy is more difficult, the birth more an ordeal, and the new baby, called Ben, is very different from their other children -- in ways they all find deeply unsettling and often shocking.

In addition to offering a highly gripping and suspenseful read, with The Fifth Child author Doris Lessing investigates the nature of family and the societal definition of what it means to be "human." Ben is referred to as an alien, a monster, a freak, an atavism from a race that is perhaps better suited to living underground, and various other "inhuman" monikers.

Lessing presents Ben's myriad quirks and misbehaviors with a tone that replicates that of a horror novel. This is quite appropriate given that the other family members view him with extreme trepidation that develops into fear for their lives with a family pet turns up dead.
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