The Testament of Jessie Lambby Jane Rogers.
This was one of the few titles on the 2011 Man Booker longlist that excited me from the short descriptions I’d read. I was familiar with Jane Rogers, having read Mr Wroe’s virgins, and Promised Land, some years ago; (she adapted Mr Wroe’s virgins for the BBC in the early 1990s; it starred Jonathan Pryce as the preacher gone mad, and was directed by Danny Boyle).
Her latest novel is one of speculative fiction, set just a few months into the future. Biological terrorists have created and let loose an airborne killer virus that causes what they call ‘Maternal Death Syndrome’ to any pregnant woman. The mother –to-be and her foetus both die shortly after the pregnancy is established. No more babies will lead to the death of mankind within a generation.
Jessie Lamb is nearly sixteen. She’s yet to discover the joys of love. Her Dad is a scientist working on a cure for MDS. Jessie meanwhile, is more concerned about the environment; she’s a teenaged green policeman to her family. She joins a positive action group of other teens with her friend Baz, (whom she’d like to be her boyfriend, but she’s not sure if he feels the same way).
The world is going mad and women are dying. Cults are springing up, gangs too – it’s not safe for young girls to be out on their own in many parts of town. The battle of the sexes has reached new heights. The scientists have come up with schemes to save babies – but at a cost, the mothers still die. Who will be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice? It’s a legal minefield and the protesters are on the case. Jessie is just an ordinary girl. She is conflicted – caught between her lofty ideals, her Dad’s day-job and the stress all this is putting on her parents and friends. What can she do to help?
Usually I don’t have problems suspending my disbelief at speculative fiction. I did this time though. It was fact that the book was set in ‘now + a couple of months’ and in a world which is so manifestly the same as ours. I couldn’t believe that a mega-contagious airborne virus based upon AIDS and CJD that could infect every woman in the world was possible in ‘our world’ – a strong sense of denial kicked in. As the story is narrated by Jessie, we learn virtually nothing about the virus and its effects itself – something I was screaming out for.
Jessie is not an unreliable narrator as such; she’s a typical teenager with teenager’s concerns who is rather blinkered and self-centred, not often seeing the whole picture. Adding a counter point of view from her father or mother may have stopped me getting worked up, but then it wouldn’t have been just Jessie’s testament. Of course, getting readers shouting at the book may have been the author’s plan all along – it certainly kept me reading, as I had to know if Jessie was going to do what I reckoned she would.
Comparisons have been made elsewhere with P D James’s foray into this realm with her novel Children of Men, which I read and enjoyed back when it was first published. It has the advantage of being clearly set in a world which has moved on and as such its central premise is more un-disbelievable (!).
Primarily, it was the ‘nowness’ of The Testament of Jessie Lamb together with the unexplained scenario that made me dislike this book. I have nothing to say about the quality of the writing except that it washed over me completely, I was too busy being cross with the story.
Not a Booker contender in my view, however it is an interesting love-it-hate-it type novel. I’ll enjoy reading your comments about this one … (6/10)