The subject matter of "The Testament of Jessie Lamb" ensures that this is not a comfortable read. Set in the near future, Rogers has imagined a truly terrifying virus that affects pregnant women, known as Maternal Death Syndrome or MDS. Everyone carries this illness but the effects, a cross between AIDS and CJD, ensure that all pregnant mothers will die - without exception. Scientists have found a way to save some of the unborn children, but only by placing their mothers in a chemically induced coma from which they won't recover. Now though, the scientists have also discovered a way of immunising frozen, pre-MDS embryos which, if they can be placed in a willing volunteer, may ultimately allow the survival of the human race. However, the volunteers need to be under 16½ or the likely success rates are too low. Step forward one Jessie Lamb.
The Booker longlist can be relied on to throw up at least one novel on a controversial subject. Last year it was "The Slap". This year it's this novel. There's no doubt it asks awkward and unsettling questions about a variety of issues including the age at which people can take informed decisions, the rights and wrongs of scientific research and animal testing and the right anyone has to chose their own death. There are no easy answers to any of these questions of course.
As you might infer from the title, the story is written from a first person narrative by Jessie. Often with first person narratives it's difficult to get a true steer on the character herself. Effectively she's dealing with the usual teen dramas of arguing parents, failed love and general `what's the point of me?' stuff. She's into environmentalism and vegetarianism, all in the idealistic way of many of her age. The most rounded character is her father, fortuitously a genetic scientist who talks a fair amount of common sense.
As for Jessie's friends, she seems to have a bizarre mix of one of each of a series of extreme beliefs. We get the ardent feminist, who joins a group called FLAME whose statements are so ludicrous that they almost undermine what is a potentially a strong feminist argument; a supporter of ALF, the animal rights movement; and a self-sufficiency fan who decides to run off to live off the land. Add into this mix her aunt who is desperate for a child, whatever the personal cost. Then there are the religious fundamentalists against scientific research called the Noahs. The problem is that these are all rather two dimensional. Most 16-year-olds I know group together in like minded cliques. There is nothing that would bind these apparent friends together.
The genesis of the virus is hinted at but never explored. Is it a terrorist act or merely an unfortunate accident? Neither Rogers, nor Jessie, are interested in this. Neither do we get a great deal on the overall impact of the disease, other than that is has clearly spawned a lot of fundamental groups of various types.
Yet for all this, there's no doubt that it asks some interesting and uncomfortable questions of the reader and the ending is genuinely moving. The whole concept of the virus itself is a scarily good basis for a story, but by presenting such a myriad of extreme views, the reality of the issue is somehow lost. FLAME for example rant that if the disease affected males then something would have been done by now. Ultimately it lacked the heart that can make dystopian stories, like "Never Let Me Go" or "The Handmaid's Tale", so affecting. But at least it doesn't try to over simplify the moral message. I'm still not sure what I think of Jessie's decision and that's to the book's credit.
on 8 May 2012
A worthy winner of the 2012 Arthur C Clarke award.
Clear, uncluttered writing and a 16 year old protagonist do not (necessarily) make this a young adult's book. Whilst not gratuitous or frequent, there's sex, violence and strong language here. And it's unflinchingly presented: no rose-tinted, watered down view of the real world here.
There are many themes to this book, and like all good science fiction it's a lens through which to view our own world. Through Jessie we witness varying views on environmentalism, activism, poverty, feminism, the media, genetic engineering and stem cell research. This is painted against a convincing backdrop of a world facing a disaster that's imminent enough to be a real threat but distant enough that attempts to combat it are divided and morally incompatible; human nature being what it is, people simply prefer to argue with each other.
A dollop of on-the-nose hypocrisy from Jessie's beloved parents (they advocate an extreme solution, as long as it doesn't involve their own daughter) brings the worldwide tragedy down to the family level; and it's shocking and powerful just how ordinary that family is.
Jessie herself is clear-thinking and resolute, but there are questions raised as to whether she truly realises the enormity of what she's undertaking. And these questions remain beautifully unanswered.
The book can be interpreted in many ways, and has many themes; my own interpretation is that it's an examination of abortion and a woman's right to choose, inverted through a science fiction world: here we have young women determined that their children have a right to life, even when it costs their own.
on 9 February 2012
My overwhelming reaction to The Testament Of Jessie Lamb, is surprise, surprise in fact that it has been nominated for this years Booker Prize and is currently on the longlist. Not because it's a bad book, in the way that say There But For The by Ali Smith is, in my opinion, a bad book, but because I was surprised it met the criteria.
In the case of this book, it appears to have been marketed as adult contemporary fiction and only has an adult imprint, a decision I find a little baffling, for a novel whose audience I would see as a GCSE student. As a piece of young adult dystopian fiction it is good, but I've read better, most notably The Giver by Lois Lowry and The Knife Of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness to which it shares a similarity in an aspect of plot.
It lacks much in originality I felt given its similarity in theme to The Children Of Men by PD James, later adapted for the screen starring Clive Owen. In the world of Jessie Lamb, there has been an act of bio-terrorism, as a consequence there has been a global fertility crisis. When women get pregnant - they die. (Hang on a minute? Wasn't that what happened to pregnant women on the island in LOST as well?) In this brave new world, set not far from our present, no more children are being born and the population of women is dropping, as those who do get pregnant never survive.
Jessie Lamb is 16, and when we meet her she is being held captive, and she recounts for us what has been happening to ordinary people since the crisis emerged. At 16, Jessie is idealistic and looking for a cause, and causes find her. The animal rights movement, the womens movement, the Noahs, and YOFI. There is a degree of cynicism in Jane Roger's writing about young people who look for a cause to be involved with. You gain a real sense that in Roger's eyes "causes" target the vulnerable and a "cause" is just "another phase" disenchanted young people go through, before growing up, becoming a champagne socialist, and attending a Tory party conference if it's in their interest to do so. And she probably has a point. Yet, for some people a cause gives their life meaning. Not for nothing I feel did Rogers give her protagonist the surname Lamb. Though again, this is a "clever" connotation in a young adult book, yet a bit patronising for an adult contemporary.
In terms of subplots, the novel asks some interesting questions related to the morals and ethics of Science, particularly IVF and the idea that scientists have long since passed the point of playing God, Rogers just pushes the boundary one step further. Ultimately though I didn't feel that Jessie's testament or sacrifice would have much impact in either the short or long term given the global scale of the issue. Which meant that the ending didn't pack the huge emotional punch it thinks it does. I also found the secondary surrounding characters very poorly drawn, and not even Jessie particularly easy to care about. Maybe when I was 12 I might have found it really important and exciting but I also think that maybe, just maybe I might have found it weak and characters uninspired and uninspiring - pretty much like I do now. I am shocked this book was even nominated to be honest. If you want a good sci-fi book to read on this topic read Jonathan Trigell's Genus
I thought this was an excellent book. A good number of other reviewers here obviously don't agree, but I found it thoughtful, gripping and very well written.
The plot has been well rehearsed elsewhere, but revolves around a 16-year-old narrator, Jessie Lamb, in a near future in which a virus has begun to cause the death of any woman who becomes pregnant. Jane Rogers uses this to reflect on a number of social issues including attitudes to women, animal research and so on. She also paints very sharp portraits of conflicting pressure-groups, both politically and religiously motivated, and of their utter moral certainty and the consequences of their conviction that they alone can see the truth.
What makes this really good, though, is Jessie's voice. I found her a completely convincing and rather engaging portrait of an adolescent, with that odd mixture of utter certainty that they can see the truth and insecurity in their search for ideas and identity, of both deep love for her parents and utter rage at them, and so on . No easy answers are presented, and there are few, if any, out-and-out good guys and bad guys, which I think is a real strength of the book. I found that the story built to a gripping climax despite there being no car chases or stand-offs with a killer. It's a beautifully written and structured tale
I would warmly recommend this to anyone who enjoys a readable, gripping and thought-provoking book.
on 19 August 2011
I had been looking forward to reading this since I saw Jane Rogers had a new novel coming out (I actually pre-ordered it on 26th September last year!), having read a couple of her books in the past and having very much enjoyed them. Admittedly one of the main attractions for me is that she lives and sets most of her books locally. Unfortunately, having now finally got around to reading it I have to say I was disappointed. I had initially been dismayed to see that Rogers, once a well-known name published by Faber, had gone (via Little Brown) to a small Scottish press that I for one had never heard of. She has said that none of the major publishers would touch `The Testament of Jessie Lamb' and I can't say I'm that surprised.
Rogers asks "what if?" and it's a good what-if, a terrifying scenario, and one that she sensibly throws us straight into the middle of without dwelling too much on the cause. But for me it's a what if that she largely fails to answer - she presents us with a world where the human race has got about 80 years left, and how do people react? Some of them sit around and talk about it over a cup of tea some of the time. A few stroppy teenagers decide everything is the fault of adults and they'd be better off without them (not much change there then). Some just move to Glossop. But most people seem to carry on exactly as normal. Yes, many - perhaps even a majority - would hope for a cure and try to carry on as before. Some might well bury themselves in minor causes (though YOFI, which is portrayed as a major player, negotiating a merger with a big London group, seems only to have about five members - it hardly gives the impression of lots of people engaging with these issues) and while the young people probably would rebel, their rebellion is all very polite. But what of all those who would react in a much different way? It wouldn't be a stretch to imagine violent unrest, suicides, maybe war as the powers that be tried to track down the terrorists, economic repercussions, nobody thinking long term, teachers and child-care workers finding they had a maximum of 18 years employment left... the list goes on and on. And with such a major issue looming over all their lives, I was slightly baffled why things like vivisection and global warming figured quite so large. That was an aspect that never quite worked for me. Other than one scene (told via a newspaper article) about a man with a pet monkey, I never got the impression that there was any kind of civil unrest going on, just a few fringe pressure groups and activists who regularly turned up like the opening to a bad joke: a busload of Noahs, a car full of FLAME women and some ALF lads... they seemed cartoonish and one-dimensional. The more I think about the novel and how this situation might actually play out, the less I think it would look like the future Rogers portrays and the more it would resemble a "Children of Men" kind of world (a story with which it shares a similar premise). The post-MDS world Rogers shows us just seems far too narrow - I never got the impression she had thought through how it would impact on every single member of society and how that society would change. The strongest aspect of the book (as it should be) is Jessie's journey from childhood to adulthood (though I'd question even that) and her "heroic" act, but for me it never had the emotional clout it ought to have done because I didn't buy the context. And because I couldn't believe in the world Jessie lived in, I couldn't believe in her either.
Jessie herself only intermittently sounds like a 16 year old, most of the time sounding instead like a creative writing assignment. Yes, that may be how she would write, but how I wish her dad had given her a dictaphone instead of a pad and pencil! At least then she might have spoken like an authentic teenager since her testament is supposed (as she tells us) to be a completely accurate, warts and all account. Rogers has said she purposely wrote Jessie with a "universal" voice rather than a regional one, but this seems a strange choice when she has gone to such lengths to accurately portray the very real locations that she uses as the setting for her story - surely in that case a nameless "everytown" would have been more appropriate?
Sometimes Jessie sounds much younger than sixteen, and at other times (in her descriptions of things and in quieter moments) she sounds altogether too writerly. In the latter part of the novel (as she makes the decision that supposedly sees her progress from childhood to adulthood) she starts to write exactly like a Jane Rogers novel. I suppose the author is doing this to show Jessie maturing, but for me it just served to highlight the inconsistency of the narrative voice.
I also wasn't thrilled with the structure of the novel. If we accept that the book represents the testament/letter that Jessie is writing then it should be presented as such. Instead it has been "edited" for dramatic effect with parts from the end of the story interspersed throughout the book (in a different font). This makes the whole thing into a sort of flashback where, although there is a bit of a twist that ensures we don't know the eventual outcome, we know pretty much where the story is heading. Perhaps this was supposed to add tension and keep the reader turning the pages to find out how Jessie ends up a prisoner, but it had the opposite effect for me. Also very good of Jessie to neatly arrange her story into chapters. And her ability to recall entire conversations verbatim is impressive too.
For me the book read like something written for teenagers which I imagine is always a risk when a book has an adolescent narrator. It would work reasonably well as a YA novel and would probably be a good starting point for debate in the classroom.
I thought the book was okay, but my problems with it far outweighed the aspects I enjoyed. It did succeed in making me think about the issues it raised which is a good thing, but I'm mystified by its presence on the Booker longlist.
Jessie Lamb lives in the near future, but it is one that has been altered by bio-terrorists. Everyone on the planet has been infected by MDS (Maternal Death Syndrome), which lies dormant until pregnancy, when it attacks the pregnant mother with a combination of AIDS/CJD. There is no cure, although research is obviously being carried out - in part by Jessie's father. At first, Jessie is unconcerned about MDS as it doesn't affect her. However, eventually, she becomes more aware of what the event of MDS means for both the world and her personally. There are no new babies and, unless something is done, the human race will die out. Society starts to break down, as children feel adults have wreaked havoc on them, destroyed the planet and killed their future. The author does a good job of presenting a chilling and uncomfortable view of what could lie ahead, making it plausible and realistic.
Jessie is an extremely idealistic sixteen year old. She is active in various groups, aimed at trying to save the planet. She complains if her parents use the car, buy new clothes or want to book a holiday. They want life to go on - she can't see how it can. In a way, Jessie comes across as slightly petulant, too idealistic and a little unsympathetic because of that; although teenagers can be that way of course! This book concerns Jessie's attempts to 'do something' to help save humanity and the novel throws up interesting questions about sacrifice and idealism. Ultimately, the character of Jessie could have been more convincing had she been less intense, but then one of the issues in the book is how old Jessie is when she chooses to make her decision. One of the better characters in the novel was Jessie's Aunt Mandy, a slightly disturbed older woman who has never had a child and is desperate to be a mother. Her situation was a much more sympathetic one, I felt, and more could have been made of it. Overall, though, an interesting and thought provoking read.
on 3 November 2013
A promising start and great idea but far too simplistic. Explanations are vague and ideas are rushed through.
Despite being discussed on BBC radio 4 womans hour, this is clearly a book that is aimed at teens and young adults (though I didnt realise this when I bought it ), so being in my early (ahem) thirties i am perhaps not in the intended target readership.
The book is written from the point of view of head-strong and impulsive, 16yo Jessie who I unfortunately couldnt warm to so ultimately didn't really care what happened.
The Testament of Jessie Lamb appealed to me due to its dystopian theme that vaguely reminded me of Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale (Contemporary Classics) . What I didn't realise was that Rogers' novel is a kind of hybrid crossover between `regular' fiction and Young Adult. The main character is a sixteen year old girl, and the tone of the narration is set accordingly. This is not to say that a young protagonist can't still appeal to adults, but The Testament of Jessie Lamb is no Catcher in The Rye in that respect, and I felt that I was reading a Young Adult novel, or worse, that I was overhearing the conversation between teenage girls on a bus.
But my main issue with this novel is that it reserves no surprises: we learn from the outset that pregnancy kills women and of course, the protagonist becomes involved in an experiment that will save the world. That's it. No twists, no turns, no surprises. By the time you are halfway into the book, you may as well stop reading because what you think is going to happen will happen, so why bother? Sure, novels are not only made of plot, but even the narration itself reserves no surprise, leaving me with the impression that the author is someone who clearly adheres to all the rules of creative writing (Rogers is a Professor of Writing. Surprise!) but who still forgot to put a soul into her story. I found her prose readable, yes, but bland. How could this book be long listed for the Man Booker?
I finished this book because I had to review it, but had it not been an Amazon Vine pick, I would have definitely stopped a few chapters in and taken it to the charity shop.
Jessie Lamb is a 16 year old girl with a conscience living in the near future where an apparently man made virus , MDS , is infecting everyone and killing all women if they conceive by an aggressive neurological degeneration that only takes a few weeks and killing the foetus as well . The disease is similar to AIDS and CJD but much quicker acting , Jessie's solution to the crisis is both noble and self-sacrificing but as the book progresses you wonder if she's doing the right thing. Very tense writing makes this a thought provoking and dark read. Highly recommended
on 10 January 2012
I have to say that I started thinking about the review of this book based on the fact that I thought it was written for adults. It was I think written for young teens, but as such is still even then only ok. The prose is uninspiring and bland, the characterisations two dimensional with no real depth and moreover the protagonist is someone for whom it is almost impossible to like. Also, why is she approached by a gang of Scots 'neds' in /around Manchester? As a Scot I must say it was rather bizarre, for an English person it must be even worse. There are other 'holes' but, fine.
Unfortunately sometimes the level of writing in children's/teen's books is less tight than for adults and this is a real shame as these books are just as important. Other writers have done this much better. Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines series is so far superior as to be in a different league of writing and demonstrates how good children's literature can be. I felt this book wasted my time and money and wouldn't recommend it at all to most people. However if you want something that doesn't challenge you in any way, has characters who are pretty bloody awful and a writing style that is bland in the extreme then go for it! (Most 12 year olds should be beyond this)