The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers

>> Thursday, September 08, 2011

TITLE: The Testament of Jessie Lamb
AUTHOR: Jane Rogers

PAGES: 240
PUBLISHER: Sandstone Press

SETTING: Contemporary NW England (somewhere outside Manchester, I think)
TYPE: Fiction

Women are dying in their millions. Some blame scientists, some see the hand of God, some see human arrogance reaping the punishment it deserves. Jessie Lamb is an ordinary girl living in extraordinary times: as her world collapses, her idealism and courage drive her towards the ultimate act of heroism. If the human race is to survive, it’s up to her.But is Jessie heroic? Or is she, as her father fears, impressionable, innocent, incapable of understanding where her actions will lead? Set just a month or two in the future, in a world irreparably altered by an act of biological terrorism, The Testament of Jessie Lamb explores a young woman’s determination to make her life count for something, as the certainties of her childhood are ripped apart.
This month my book club decided to read something out of the Man Booker prize longlist. The book chosen was Patrick McGuinness' The Last Hundred Days (and I'm halfway through it as I write this), but the one that caught my attention when I read the summaries was the one that seemed to be the most unlikely choice for the Booker.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb is set in the near future, in a world still reeling from a bioterrorist attack that unleashed Maternal Death Syndrome (MDS) on humanity. Everyone is infected with a deadly virus that is activated when a woman is pregnant. There is no cure, and the millions of women who happened to be pregnant when the attack happened have all died.

Our protagonist and narrator is 16-year-old Jessie. As the book starts, she's been imprisoned by her father, who's determined to prevent her from doing something -we're not told what until later. Her diary entries written during her captivity frame the story of what brought her to that point, and what happened afterwards.

At the beginning, TTOJL reminded me a bit of another book featuring a teenager in the midst of an unfolding apocalypse, Life As We Knew It. Like the narrator of that book, Jessie is often too consumed in her private worries to do more than cursorily mention some of the Big Stuff going on around the world. And yet, even through her uninterested reports, we get an excellent idea of what's happening, in fact, what must be happening behind some of those headlines, even when Jessie herself doesn't even consider that.

Gradually, though, circumstances make Jessie more and more engaged in what's going on. The end of the world as we know it and the possibility that there might be no more children born ever again has unleashed a wave of activism and protest groups amongst the young, representing every possible interest and viewpoint. And Jessie and her friends are in the thick of it.

Soon comparisons to Life As We Knew It flew out the window and the book started acquiring tinges of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Scientists have developed a way to impregnate young volunteers (the younger the better) with vaccinated embryos and then keep their bodies artificially alive through the pregnancy, even as their brains turn to mush.

My first instinct with Jessie was to be exactly like her parents and dismiss her fascination with the Sleeping Beauties (as the volunteers are called) as pure teenage melodrama, the typical fantasy of "I will die in an extremely heroic way and then they'll be sorry". I rolled my eyes when she first came up with her plan. But after a while, I had no choice but to start taking her and her decisions more seriously. Stroppy teenager or not, she does have a point about the adults around her being hypocritical, talking eloquently about the need for people to sacrifice for the future of humankind, but that's only as long as it doesn't have a personal cost to them. Talk, talk, talk, without actually doing anything, that's what grown-ups are to Jessie and her cohort, and damned if they are not proved right.

The genius of this book is that Jessie doesn't change from emo teen into inspiring, corageous heroine. She's still irritating and immature, even when her actions are inspiring, corageous and mature. I was still rolling my eyes and not particularly liking her as she made the most extraordinary and brave decisions.

This is not really an "issue" book and the focus is on Jessie, but as her story unfolds, Rogers provides a thoughtful treatment of quite thorny subjects. We all bring prejudices to our reading, and I was well aware of mine bristling. The Sleeping Beauties shouldn't have to do it, why are women always the victims, and yes, I instinctively aligned myself with the FLAME activists in the book in opposing the self-sacrifices. They argued that if MDS was killing men, "they" would have sorted out a solution already, and young women shouldn't have to be sacrificing themselves. And yet, young men have forever been the ones to volunteer for wars in which it was pretty clear a good number of them would be simply cannon fodder, so it's not that easy. Are these girls old enough to make this decision by themselves, even if they seem to be making it for the right reasons? What if they're deluding themselves? And actually, what are the right reasons? No conclusions, I'm afraid, but I liked that Rogers made me question these things, and by setting up a story that looked deceptively simple.



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