Well, we’re getting into the final days of summer, and hopefully the final days of triple digit temperatures. I’ve got to really step up my game to tell you what I’ve been reading before the season is long gone. Here’s the first of three posts on what I’ve been reading the past few weeks…
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing
The Gist: Harriett and David Lovatt see themselves above the fray when it comes to the sexual revolution in 1960s England. They want a simpler, more traditional life surrounded by a large family. While there are problems pursuing their path—the expenses of a large home, multiple pregnancies, and the need for day-to-day help from Harriett’s increasingly resentful mother—they remain committed to their goals. When their fifth child Ben is born following a nightmare pregnancy, the Lovatts are visited by an unthinkable horror. Ben is alien, violent, almost inhuman in appearance, and inexplicable in his responses to normal human interactions. The family’s world begins to tear apart.
Status: This was my second read of Lessing’s modern day horror story. I came across it in a Texas bookstore with my sister earlier this summer and remembered how good it was. I bought her a copy and ended up reading it again over the weekend before leaving it with her.
Summer Escapism: The best! (A real “there but for the grace of God go I” kind of escapism.)
Strength of Writing: A (It’s Lessing. What do you expect?)
Stimulation of the Little Grey Cells: B
Social Relevance: B (Beyond the horror story, there are underlying themes of dreams broken and plans destroyed, maternal love vs. fraternal love, and the inability to control what life brings.)
General Reaction: I loved it the first time I read it 20 years ago, and I loved it when I read it again this summer. The Fifth Child works so well because the horror is not from the outside. Ben is not possessed by a demon. There are no supernatural reasons for why Ben is so alien and dangerous. Although Harriet believes Ben is a punishment visited on them for their “selfish” plans to live an idyllic life, both she and David begin to see this child as a throwback to a previous hominid form. This is nature at work. And it means the horror is in us.
Ben in the World by Doris Lessing
The Gist: In this sequel to The Fifth Child, we see how Ben perceives the world around him. He knows he is different, and he pines for a place where he is accepted and understood. As he makes his way across the globe, he is sometimes treated to kindness; but more often he is used and manipulated by the unscrupulous. The monster in The Fifth Child becomes the protagonist of a modern fable.
Summer Escapism: C (Not much, but that’s OK. While it is easy to relish a horror story, this fable was sometimes painful to get through. The reader is asked to sympathize with Ben, but his alien nature makes that a difficult process. That, in itself, could be considered either a flaw or an accomplishment, depending on what Lessing intended.)
Strength of Writing: A
Stimulation of the Little Grey Cells: C (I struggled through this book for the reason given above.)
Social Relevance: B (How do you apply the Golden Rule to a monster, even if the monster is part of us?)
General Reaction: A frustrating experience (and I wasn’t the only frustrated reader), but that may be because I harbored expectations based on the earlier novel. Here’s what’s ultimately interesting about this book: Ben’s monstrous behavior can be explained by his true nature; but what can we say about the monstrous behavior of the humans in the book? Is that our nature? The answer is not what we would prefer to hear, but we know it to be true too well.
So those are two of the title I read recently. Your turn! What have you been reading lately?