Apparently I am always in the mood to read this in January. In any case, this is a repost of the review I wrote a while ago for both this and it's sequel, although it's only posted on the sequel (Ben, In the World).
I read these books many times, most recently a couple of years ago, but I've never written a review about them. I thought it apropos to do so, on the eve of Doris Lessing's death.
These are both short novels and fast reads, and Lessing is certainly of the school of "don't supply detail unless it drives the story forward", which some people find very difficult reading, but I don't. And they are stunning, the first (The Fifth Child) perhaps more than the second (Ben, In the World).
It surprises a lot of people to know that Lessing wrote in so many genres, from Shikasta's science fiction to the Good Terrorist's (my first exposure to Lessing) exploration of domestic terrorism and arguably one of the best depictions of the banality of mental illness I've ever read. These two are often shelved as horror novels, particularly the first one, The Fifth Child. And they are certainly horrific in their own way, but it's a sly, dark, creeping horror, not a slasher fest.
Indeed, the plot is simple: David and Harriet lead a perfectly charmed life: A perfect marriage, a perfect house, perfect jobs, and four perfect children, all seemingly with no effort on their part. Some people are just lucky that way. And then comes the unexpected fifth child Ben, and he is.. wrong. He is alien, unloving, unlovable, and soon enough, dangerous. But clearly perfectly healthy. So what does a perfect mother do with such a child?
The Fifth Child explores Ben's life until the age of fifteen, and Ben in the World the rest of his life. The slow disintegration of particularly Harriet's world around her, forced to choose between this one child she never wanted and who doesn't want her, or her perfect life, you would think the choice is simple, but it's far from it. For how does a perfect mother admit even to herself that she doesn't love her child, and he doesn't love her? What is love really? and what meaning does family really have, how far does that blood tie really bind you?
Ben in the World turns away from exploring love and family, into exploring what it means to be human at all, and how to fit into a world you are not made for and don't really understand. It's not nearly as good as the first book overall, but it does have some parts that are quite stunning.
Overall, if you haven't read any Lessing at all and have no idea where to start, I'd recommend two things: The Fifth Child, and her Nobel lecture from 2007. And then if you like her style (and admittedly, she was a stylist, and is not for everyone), then maybe pick up The Good Terrorist or some of the Shikasta books, or The Grass is Singing (if you liked her Nobel Lecture, head there next).