"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen
This book is terrifying, in both a general and a very specific way. I loved it, and it haunts me.
In the specific sense, it's a very domestic horror story, and taps into a fear that I suspect is pretty common, especially among women. I've discussed it with friends, this vague terror of procreation - not just the body horror of pregnancy and childbirth, of incubating some alien thing that will eventually push itself out of you - but the alarming uncertainty about what kind of child you will end up with. What if there's something horribly wrong with it? What if you are unable to love it? What if it doesn't love you, and can't be helped or fixed, and grows up to do awful, evil things?
And who will they blame? The mother, of course. Always the mother.
That is what happens to Harriet and David Lovatt in The Fifth Child. Drawn together initially by their shared conservative values and fervent devotion to family life, the Lovatts move into a massive house in the outskirts of London soon after their marriage and promptly get to work on procreating. Child after child, with barely a year between them, begin to fill their home, while David and Harriet earnestly set about creating a cozy, immaculate home life. Soon, the house is crowded for weeks at a time with close and distant relatives, attracted by the homey, idyllic atmosphere.
"They all enjoyed themselves, agreeing that the house was made for it. Around the great family table, where so many chairs could be comfortably accommodated, people sat through long pleasant meals, or found their way there between meals to drink coffee and tea, and to talk. And laugh..."
Money is tight, and the outside world of the 1960's scorns their conservatism and their fecundity, but in general the Lovatts are euphoric - this is all they wanted from life, and they plan to keep going. Six or eight children! A house always full of friends and family, laughter and love!
But all too soon, it shatters.
Harriet knows there's something wrong with her fifth pregnancy soon after it begins. The child thrashes angrily in the womb, keeping her awake at all hours, sucking greedily away at her reserves. And when he is born, Ben is enormous, grotesque, violent, inhuman. His very presence is abhorrent and destructive. He rages, he shrieks, he kills the family cat and tries to kill his brother. He matures physically very early, but never learns to properly speak, and seems to have no emotions or human feelings besides fury. He tears the family apart, the way a butcher carves apart a pig.
Harriet, along with everyone else, fears and loathes the child, but she cannot bring herself to leave him in the hellish institution that the rest of the family wants him dumped in. Instead, she takes him home, and then must watch as her family, her marriage, her well-being, her entire life, crumbles around her in his wake.
It's a gripping story, unsettling and dreadful but so incredibly well-told. I could not put this thing down, much as it scraped away at my guts unremittingly.
Because of course, it's not just the fear of having babies that makes this story so terrifyingly relatable - it's the fear of the future in general. We can make all these perfect plans, steadfastly build ourselves the ideal life, and then fate can just stomp in and smash it all to smithereens. There is nothing we can do about it, but hope and deny and maybe buy some insurance policies to help us sleep at night. The best-laid plains of mice and men oft go astray... and sometimes they are outright annihilated by a volcano or an asteroid or an atom bomb.
What can you do? It's a cruel and terrifying universe.
In a New York Times interview, Lessing scoffs at critics who interpret this book as an elaborate allegory of something else (the situation in Palestine? migrant labor in Europe?) - she says that they are trying to take a volatile, disturbing text and make it safe. And yet, there are global metaphors to be found within this domestic grotesque, as Lessing herself describes:
"I do have a sense, and I've never not had it, of how easily things can vanish," she said. "It's a sense of disaster. I know where it comes from - my upbringing. That damn First World War, which rode my entire childhood, because my father was so damaged by it. This damn war rammed down my throat day and night, and then World War II coming, which they talked about all the time. You know, you can never get out from under this kind of upbringing, the continual obsession with this. And after all, it's true. These wars did arise, and destroyed a beautiful household with all the loving children."