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From Barnes & NobleA Review of Ben, in the World
Born in Persia and raised in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Doris Lessing made her literary debut in 1950 with a novel about interracial tensions in Africa entitled The Grass Is Singing. Since then, Lessing has delivered more than 30 major works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama, most notably her massive experimental novel, The Golden Notebook, published in 1962. A common theme threading through her oeuvre, as Lessing herself noted in her 1994 autobiography, Walking in the Shade, is a rejection of "the human condition," which means to "be trapped by circumstances."
Nowhere did she probe the dark contradictions of the human condition more deeply than in The Fifth Child, a short novel about Ben Lovatt, a Neanderthal-like genetic throwback born to "normal" parents in modern-day England. Ben is marked as an outcast from the day of his birth because of his monstrous appearance. "He did not look like a baby at all. He had a heavy-shouldered hunched look, as if he were crouching there as he lay. His forehead sloped from his eyebrows to his crown." Then there is the matter of Ben's equally bestial behavior. He terrorizes siblings and kills family pets. He is automatically assumed to be a demon seed and a scourge to society. Although slight, the novel was a taut springboard for Lessing's most pressing concerns—the insurmountable differences between men and women, the bind between the individual and greater society, and how society both celebrates and castigates "the other."
In Ben, in the World, Lessing again takes up the narrative of Ben's life and unsentimentally depicts his education in the ways of the wider world. At 18 he has grown into a werewolf of sorts, hirsute and homeless, renounced by his family. He barks when happy, grunts when annoyed, and dines on small birds. Gainful employment, let alone romance, has proven a challenge. Ironically, Ben winds up with more caretakers as an adult, including Rita, a prostitute who thrills to his animal ways in bed. But although she means well, Rita is the first in a series of people who manipulate Ben for selfish purposes. Construction foremen rely on him for heavy lifting, then cheat him out of his wages; Rita's pimp gives him money and then uses him to smuggle dope to France; a fledgling filmmaker drags Ben into a movie about prehistoric creatures, then cruelly promises to reunite him with similar-looking people. By the novel's end, Ben predictably flees a group of frenzied scientists.
Lessing's genius here is to embody the otherness of Ben's point of view without condescending to him. In unadorned prose, she dramatizes Ben as he wrestles with his animal nature, his need to inflict harm as well as his desire to repress that impulse. In his travels, she writes, Ben "looked hard at faces for that surprised stare that might turn out to be dangerous."
Ben's humanity stands out in sharp relief. Like his caretakers, who congratulate themselves on shepherding him through the world, Ben gets lonely and hungry, and he misses his family. In the end, like them, he commits desperate acts because he feels the sorrow of consciousness, "the knowledge of his aloneness."
In The Fifth Child, Ben, like the monster of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, reflects the hubris of his creators; in this sequel he becomes, like Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan, a "perpetual exile." And as with Burroughs's apeman, Ben's tragedy is that his caretakers are too busy exploiting him to realize they can learn from his predicament. Thanks to Lessing's deep understanding of Ben's world, however, it will be difficult for readers to make a similar oversight.
About the Author
Doris Lessing was born to British parents in Persia in 1919 and moved with her family to Southern Rhodesia when she was five years old. She went to England in 1949 and has lived there ever since. She is the author of more than 30 books—novels, short stories, reportage, poems, and plays—and is considered among the most important writers of the postwar era.