They called it MDS – Maternal Death Syndrome. No one knew where it originated, but its effects were all too familiar: to lay waste to the brains of any women who became pregnant – with no possible exceptions, because everyone carries the disease. Jessie Lamb is a teenager living near Manchester; though her father is a fertility scientist, she has little care for the state of the world – as far as she’s concerned, this is just the way things are, and any problems are for adults to deal with.
But then, through a friend, Jessie gets involved in Youth For Independence (YOFI), a movement centred on the idea that young people must repair the damage to the world which adults have caused:
[…]maybe, if we could get enough people to join us, trying to create a different way of living on the planet, maybe that in itself would start to produce an answer to MDS. A solution we couldn’t even imagine yet. (p. 29)
There’s a touch of wishful thinking in Jessie’s thought process, here; and she soon leaves YOFI when the reality doesn’t match up to what she’d hoped. But there’s also a strong desire to do something to help; and, though none of the other protest groups which spring up in the wake of MDS is attractive to Jessie, she never loses that desire.
Jessie finally believes she has found the thing she can do when she hears about the Sleeping Beauties: girls who have volunteered to be placed into a coma so they can bring to term frozen embryos which can then receive a new vaccine against MDS (frozen embryos alone can be vaccinated because they don’t carry the disease). Jessie’s father is quite enthusiastic about the prospects of this programme initially, but soon changes his tune when his daughter declares her intention to volunteer – so much so that he holds her captive to stop her; that’s where we first meet Jessie, and where she’s writing the text we hold, which is her attempt to explain herself.
The whole world might be in the grip of an epidemic in The Testament of Jessie Lamb, but the focus is decidedly intimate. Jane Rogers seems to signal this near the near the beginning of the novel, when she has Jessie and her friend Sal imagine what would happen in a world without humans – the implication being that this playful speculation is as far as the book is going to go down that particular avenue. Likewise, though there’s social unrest in The Testament, it all takes place ‘off-stage’ or on TV news reports. This novel is about Jessie, her relationships, and the decision she wants to make.
The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a novel that challenges its readers to see things from its protagonist’s point of view. In the end, I can’t quite do this: I can see where Jessie is coming from – for her, it’s about having the power to do something that makes a difference, even if adults think that difference is too insignificant for the price that must be paid – and Rogers charts the course of Jessie’s thoughts clearly. But I still feel as though I’m viewing Jessie’s thought process as an outside observer, rather than truly inhabiting it. Be that as it may, The Testament is unforgiving in its treatment of hard consequences and decisions; it has the courage of its convictions and, for that, firmly deserves to be read.
This novel has been shortlisted for the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts about the Award.
Jane Rogers’ website
The publisher, Sandstone Press
Booker Prize interview with Rogers
Some other reviews of The Testament of Jessie Lamb: Niall Harrison for Strange Horizons; Aishwarya Subramanian at Practically Marzipan; Richard Palmer at Solar Bridge; Sophie Playle for MouthLondon.
3rd April 2012 at 5:19 pm
This book really irritated me (see my thoughts here). I was crying out for more information, but didn’t get it – well Jessie was telling the story and she didn’t know, but I found that so frustrating!
3rd April 2012 at 9:51 pm
Thanks for the link, Annabel – it always fascinates me to see what different reactions people can have to the same book!