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Lessing's latest novel is ironically at odds with her essays

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The Fifth Child, by Doris Lessing. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 133 pp. $16.95. This novel reads as if it had been poured white-hot onto the printed page. The narrative has the swift inevitability of a fairy tale, yet Doris Lessing's power of description adds to it the rough, grainy texture of a realism that could stand beside Zola's. Spare, hard-edged, stark as a parable carved in stone, it demands interpretation.

Harriet and David meet at an office party in the late 1960s. They strike their contemporaries as timid, conservative, old-fashioned. But they are not so much timid as stubborn people, uninfluenced by fads. They strike each other as ideal. They know what they want: marriage, a home, a large family, and they set about realizing their goals.

Despite the mild misgivings of his relatives and the occasional grumblings of hers, the Lovatts' endeavor seems a remarkable, even exemplary, success. Their bustling, happy household is the center of family gatherings. ``This is what everyone wants, really,'' says Harriet, ``but we've been brainwashed out of it.'' Harriet and David maintain that life can be wonderful, if only you make the right choices, as they have.

Then Harriet becomes pregnant again. This one is different, even in the womb: a fierce, incredibly powerful creature, who even as a fetus frightens and exhausts his mother. Given the name Ben, he single-handedly transforms a loving household into a living nightmare. He receives no joy from his mother's attempts to cuddle him. He takes a cold, triumphant pleasure in having his way.


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