Maybe I was primed for horror because I woke before dawn on a Sunday morning and could not find my way back to sleep. I hate the sunrise. It brings to mind all-nighters and benders from my past, the grit and clench of bad drugs and insomnia. When I think about all those blissed-out swamis, granola-eaters, and alpha go-getters who believe dawn is the most beautiful part of the day, I wonder if something is wrong with me. So as the sky turned an uneasy pink, I picked up Doris Lessing‘s The Fifth Child and discovered a story that digs into the muck of living beyond the bounds of time, consensus, and normalcy.

The novel’s crisis is simple; its implications are not. A young couple is determined to fill their home with children and find “happiness, in the old style.” But their fifth child frightens them. I’ll leave it at that. Read it. It’s a fast 125 pages, and we should have more novellas. There are no chapters or sections, which makes the story feel especially relentless.

Lessing’s writing is lean and frighteningly precise, fusing the sweep of a fable with a cinematographer’s mastery of space. She carries us through the family’s home across decades, roving through rooms we come to know well. And without my realizing it, she left me stranded in a moral grey zone where I found myself rooting for a terrible outcome; I had become part of a horror that telescopes from the personal to the social to the existential. We remain in the house until the mother takes a ghastly trip that feels like a permanent stain on some part of myself I cannot name. At that moment, I was incredibly grateful the morning sun was shining through my window.

(Thank you, David Leo Rice, for the recommendation.)

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