Doris Lessing's acclaimed 1988 novel The Fifth Child is the grim but compelling tale of an English family that is destroyed by the birth of a child who is a throwback to an earlier stage of human development. He, Ben, is called a goblin, a troll, a dwarf, a gnome, a freak, a monster, an alien, a savage, a changeling, and a Neanderthal.
In the just published sequel, Ben, in the World, he is most often, at age 18, referred to as a yeti. Always hungry for meat, he sometimes catches birds with his bare hands, kills them, plucks them, and eats them raw.
In The Fifth Child we dislike, even hate, Ben for what he does to his family, while in Ben, in the World we are asked to feel sympathy for him as a stranger in a strange land. We learn that he has become a poor loner, yearning for a sense of belonging.
Lessing, described by the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature as "a master of the short story," keeps her short novel moving along nicely, as she directs Ben through misadventures in London, Nice, and Rio.
She creates an array of characters who hinder or help Ben along his way, such as Mrs. Biggs, who is the first to show Ben maternal love outside his family of origin; Alex, a movie director who envisions Ben in a successful film about a primitive tribe; and Dr. Gaumlach, who wants to use Ben to advance the cause of science (and his own career).
Of special interest is Teresa, a young woman who has lifted herself out of Rio's wretched slums and therefore is in a position to help Ben when his yearning to find a home reaches a crisis point.
The sequel rides the emotional momentum of its predecessor. I would think one would definitely want to read The Fifth Child before taking on Ben, in the World. As Lessing once more plays with the possibilities of a wild man thrown into today's world, she reminds us of the times when we too have felt like strangers in a strange land.
Don Smith is a Senior Trainer with the Great Books Foundation.