In the unconstrained atmosphere of England in the late 1960s, Harriet and David Lovatt defy the "greedy and selfish" spirit of the times with their version of tradition and normalcy: a large family, all the expected pleasures of a rich and responsible home life, children growing, Harriet tending, David providing. Even as the day's events take a dark turn - an ominous surge in crime, unemployment, unrest - the Lovatts cling to their belief that an obstinacy guarded contentedness will preserve them from the world outside. Until the birth of their fifth child.
Harriet and David are stricken with astonishment at their new infant. Almost gruesome in appearance, insatiably hungry, abnormally strong, demanding and violent, Ben has nothing infant-like about him, nothing innocent or unsullied - nothing normal by society's standards. Harriet and David understand immediately that he will never be accepted in their world. And Harriet finds she cannot love him. David cannot bring himself to touch him. The four older children are quickly afraid of him. Family and friends who once gravitated to the Lovatts' begin to stay away.
Now, in this house, where there had been nothing but kindness, warmth, and comfort, ther is restraint, wariness, and anxiety. Harriet and David are torn - as they would never have believed possible - between their instincts as parents and their shocked reaction to this fierce and unlovable baby. Their vision of the world as a simple and benign place is desperately threatened by the mere existence of one of their own children. AS the novel unfolds in spare and startling scenes, we are drawn deep into the life of the Lovatt family, and are witness to the terrifying confusion of emotion that becomes their daily fare as they cope with Ben - and with their own response to him - through his childhood and adolescence....
But Doris Lessing is giving us, as well, a larger picture. The story of the Lovatts' extraordinary circumstance becomes a vivid reflection of society's unwillingness to confront - and its eventual complicity in its own most brutal aspects.