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This review is from: The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Paperback)The Testament of Jessie Lamb fully deserves its Booker longlisting. For such a short book, there's so much in it.
Ostensibly about a dystopian future in which pregnant women die, we find a novel about teenage innocence, the desire to be heroic, questions about the meaning of life and, at the most basic, the relationship between father and daughter. Broadly, Jessie Lamb is a 16 year old, living in a world where pregnant women die. The survival of the human race is threatened and the current hope is that Sleeping Beauty mothers will volunteer to become pregnant, be sedated until the baby is born and then be left to die. Jessie's father works as a technician at the hospital where this program is taken forward and after listening to him justify his work, she is persuaded to volunteer for the program. Her father is not so keen.
Some commentators have thought that Testament is fundamentally feminist. I'm not sure how far that's true. The basic premise of Maternal Death Syndrome does involve women but the impacts will be universal - without a cure, humankind will die out. Moreover, the question of young people laying down their lives for a greater good has traditionally been, perhaps not quite exclusively, the preserve of men in warfare or terrorism. In creating the MDS, Jane Rogers has cleverly found a way to reverse the gender roles - perhaps also a way to remove the focus from more emotive and current questions of martyrdom.
Adding to the spice, there is also the question of the age of majority. As a 16 year old, should Jessie be able to choose her own destiny? At an older age, she would unquestionably be able to do so - just as her Aunty Mandy is doing. But if she waits, Jessie will have missed the boat; the program is only open to women under the age of 16½. So despite the doctors' reassurances of no pressure, Jessie's decision is very much time-critical.
Jane Rogers also engages with the reader in the moral debate about whether someone should be allowed to take the "right" decision even if the underlying logic is flawed through Rosa, Jessie's schoolmate who is determined to volunteer despite having no convincing justification for it.
The story is pacy and has moments of real tension. Whilst some of the characters are rather two dimensional, Jessie herself and her father do feel real, solid and develop as events unfold.
There are some parallels to other texts - most notably Never Let Me Go - but this take is original enough to stand on its own merit. The writing style of Never Let Me Go was more stylized; more perfect. The device of a diary interspersed with an epistle is sometimes a bit clunky and Jessie Lamb's confused ideals make for a less clean novel. Ishuguro's clones had been brought up to expect their own sacrifice. Jessie Lamb wasn't; she saw news reports and chose to take on her role. She had the choice. Yet, for all this, there is still the same issue - what is the point of living when you know that it will all come to an end - which is pretty much where we all stand. On the one hand, we can live for the pleasure of the moment. On the other, we can feel a need to pass things on to future generations. And mostly we lurch wildly between the two positions. Neither position is right, but neither is wrong. That's part of the beauty of The Testament of Jessie Lamb - there are no easy answers and there are strengths and weaknesses in the positions of both Jessie and her father.
If there's one real moment of clunk, it is right at the end when Jessie Lamb says what we have all been thinking - that she has much in common with suicide bombers. Actually saying it cheapens the effect a little. But mostly this is a novel teeming with ideas and leaves the reader thinking.