Ever unpredictable, Lessing now offers a rather cryptic yet uncommonly accessible tale of psycho-social horror: a variation on the classic "changeling" formula—here marbled, subtly and disturbingly, with such Lessing themes as apocalyptic doom, the rough dignity of society's outcasts, and the dark underside of human nature. (The five-novel "Martha Quest" series, Lessing readers will remember, is called Children of Violence.) In the 1960's, that "greedy and selfish" time of alienation and "bad news from everywhere," young architect David (terribly old-fashioned) meets solid, homey Harriet (a grownup virgin)—and soon they're a couple, blissful and confident in their sharing of all the traditional, "unfashionable" values. They buy a big house (with help from David's wealthy father), joyfully begin having babies (they want at least seven or eight), and become the happy center of rich, extended family life, continually visited by assorted in-laws. Circa 1972, they're relieved and grateful: "they had chosen, and so obstinately, the best—this." With Harriet's fifth pregnancy, however, this idyll (quickly, hypnotically sketched) begins to fall under a sickly, expanding, implacable shadow. The expectant mother is tormented by the fierce, unnaturally strong fetus. When born, baby Ben is heavy, muscular, creepy-looking—"like a troll, or a goblin or something"—and violent. As a child, he's hostile, unteachable, "neanderthal"dike, more dangerously violent (he kills a dog, then turns to humans) with each passing year. The family is splintered, cruelly transformed—by fear, shame, and furious sorrow (especially vulnerable little Paul). Eventually, urged on by David and flinty Grandma Dorothy, Harriet agrees to give Ben over to "one of those places that exist in order to take on children families simply want to get rid of." But, in a truly nightmarish sequence, the mother reclaims her unlovable horror-child from a death-ward for the unwanted. And, through sheer willpower and ruthless shrewdness, Harriet manages a sort of coexistence between the family (forever fractured) and the "throwback"—though the teen-age Ben inevitably takes off to roam the earth with the punks and outlaws who accept him. "Perhaps quite soon. . . she would be looking at the box, and there, in a shot of the News of Berlin, Madrid, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, she would see Ben, standing rather apart from the crowd, staring at the camera with his goblin eyes, or searching the faces in the crowd for another of his own kind." As a symbolic summing-up of the past three decades, from Sixties cataclysm to Eighties terrorism, this short novel is vaguely provocative at best; the even broader, socio-anthropological subtext—civilized, familial mankind forced to confront the primitive animal within—is only slightly more persuasive. But, despite echoes of pop-fiction (Rosemary's Baby, etc.) and TV-movie case-histories (damaged child, valiant mum), the plain story itself—fine-tuned with ordinary-life details yet also insidiously fable-like—is stark, relentless, and memorably harrowing.
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