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Difficult questions asked but let down by two dimensional groups
on 29 August 2011
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.