THE FIFTH CHILD

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.

Pub Date: March 25, 1988

ISBN: 0679721827

Page Count: 148

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1988

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TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

A first novel, this is also a first person account of Scout's (Jean Louise) recall of the years that led to the ending of a mystery, the breaking of her brother Jem's elbow, the death of her father's enemy — and the close of childhood years. A widower, Atticus raises his children with legal dispassion and paternal intelligence, and is ably abetted by Calpurnia, the colored cook, while the Alabama town of Maycomb, in the 1930's, remains aloof to their divergence from its tribal patterns. Scout and Jem, with their summer-time companion, Dill, find their paths free from interference — but not from dangers; their curiosity about the imprisoned Boo, whose miserable past is incorporated in their play, results in a tentative friendliness; their fears of Atticus' lack of distinction is dissipated when he shoots a mad dog; his defense of a Negro accused of raping a white girl, Mayella Ewell, is followed with avid interest and turns the rabble whites against him. Scout is the means of averting an attack on Atticus but when he loses the case it is Boo who saves Jem and Scout by killing Mayella's father when he attempts to murder them. The shadows of a beginning for black-white understanding, the persistent fight that Scout carries on against school, Jem's emergence into adulthood, Calpurnia's quiet power, and all the incidents touching on the children's "growing outward" have an attractive starchiness that keeps this southern picture pert and provocative. There is much advance interest in this book; it has been selected by the Literary Guild and Reader's Digest; it should win many friends.

Pub Date: July 11, 1960

ISBN: 0060935464

Page Count: 323

Publisher: Lippincott

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1960

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ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH

While a few weeks ago it seemed as if Praeger would have a two month lead over Dutton in their presentation of this Soviet best seller, both the "authorized" edition (Dutton's) and the "unauthorized" (Praeger's) will appear almost simultaneously. There has been considerable advance attention on what appears to be as much of a publishing cause celebre here as the original appearance of the book in Russia. Without entering into the scrimmage, or dismissing it as a plague on both your houses, we will limit ourselves to a few facts. Royalties from the "unauthorized" edition will go to the International Rescue Committee; Dutton with their contracted edition is adhering to copyright conventions. The Praeger edition has two translators and one of them is the translator of Doctor Zhivago Dutton's translator, Ralph Parker, has been stigmatized by Praeger as "an apologist for the Soviet regime". To the untutored eye, the Dutton translation seems a little more literary, the Praeger perhaps closer to the rather primitive style of the original. The book itself is an account of one day in the three thousand six hundred and fifty three days of the sentence to be served by a carpenter, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. (Solzhenitsyn was a political prisoner.) From the unrelenting cold without, to the conditions within, from the bathhouse to the latrine to the cells where survival for more than two weeks is impossible, this records the hopeless facts of existence as faced by thousands who went on "living like this, with your eyes on the ground". The Dutton edition has an excellent introduction providing an orientation on the political background to its appearance in Russia by Marvin Kalb. All involved in its publication (translators, introducers, etc.) claim for it great "artistic" values which we cannot share, although there is no question of its importance as a political and human document and as significant and tangible evidence of the de-Stalinization program.

Pub Date: June 15, 1963

ISBN: 0451228146

Page Count: 181

Publisher: Praeger

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1963

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