Far from resting on her laurels, Lessing—who has been publishing for 50 years, and goes from strength to strength—offers this bleak monitory sequel to her harrowing The Fifth Child (1988).
That novel’s bewildered protagonists, Harriet and David Lovatt, found their serene family life severely disrupted by the appearance of their youngest child Ben, an uneducable, inexplicably violent “throwback” who from early childhood loomed as a dangerous threat to his four siblings and as a consequence endured years of analysis, institutional care, and, eventually, homelessness. As this story opens, Ben—now 18, but so unnaturally hirsute and physically powerful he seems much older—wanders through London, rejected by his terrified family, cheated by employers who make use of his brute strength, accepted only by an elderly pensioner who takes him in and a whore who’s excited by his impulsive animal sexuality. The old woman dies, the whore’s pimp realizes Ben can be employed as an unaware drug courier, and the outcast finds himself in France, then, having attracted the attention of an American filmmaker who senses Ben’s deeply ingrained atavism, in Brazil—where the savagely ironic denouement takes place in a remote mountain area. Comparisons to Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There are probably inevitable, but this novel operates at levels of saeva indignatio and emotional intensity undreamt of in that frail satire. Lessing eschews subtlety: underclass characters sympathetic to Ben are unfailingly good; his exploiters (particularly an amoral American geneticist) irredeemably bad. It simply doesn’t matter. Ben’s half-human ignorance, paranoia, and rage are magnificently imagined, and vividly present on every page. The condition of the outsider has hardly ever before in fiction been portrayed with such raw power and righteous anger—and this from an author who’s now in her 80s.
Isn’t it about time this woman received serious Nobel Prize consideration? Few, if any, living writers can have explored so many forbidding fictional worlds with such passion and conviction.