The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers (2011) 240 p.
The Testament of Jessie Lamb is science fiction, and is therefore one of the Booker longlist’s token genre selections, alongside The Sisters Brothers for a Western and Derby Day for historical fiction (which is the most tolerable of genre works, as far as the committee is concerned). Being a Booker longlistee, of course, means that it’s literary science fiction – the kind of thing Margaret Atwood would write and then deny writing.
The Testament of Jessie Lamb is set in a modern-day England that has suddenly been ravaged, along with the rest of the world, by a genetically engineered disease called Maternal Death Syndrome. Mothers can no longer bear children; the pregnancy kills them and their unborn children. No new babies are being born, despair and suicide wrack the world, scientists are scrambling to find a cure, and religious fundamentalists are duking it out with activist groups in the streets. The protagonist is the titular Jessie Lamb, a high school student whose father works in a research lab. It reminded me partly of Oryx & Crake, partly of Never Let Me Go and partly of Children of Men.
The novel is relayed as a frame story, with Jessie being held captive and writing down her “testament.” It soon becomes clear that her captor is her father, trying to prevent her from carrying out a decision she has made; one which she thinks is noble and heroic, and one which her father thinks is stupid and wasteful. At first I thought the book was fairly predictable, guessing what her decision was around page 50, but I realised before long that the book’s mystery was entirely different: whether Jessie is right, or whether her father is right. Much like the fate of the children at Hailsham in Never Let Me Go, Jessie’s dilemma is revealed relatively early in the book, and the story works towards a deeper purpose.
Essentially it is this: scientists have discovered a cure for MDS, but can only vaccinate embryos that already exist in frozen storage. Women must volunteer to be implanted, sacrificing their lives in order to produce MDS-free babies and preserve the human race; and because MDS attacks the immune system, younger, teenage volunteers are preferred. (This is obviously plot-servicing science, but the book is good enough that Rogers can be forgiven.) The first point this raises is whether it’s moral for 16-year old girls to sign their lives away; whether they can be considered mature enough to make that decision. Several characters give different takes on this; personally, with the survival of the human race at stake, I would sanction pretty much anything (although, as Jessie’s father shows, our beliefs are quite flexible when our own loved ones are threatened). The second (and more important) point is whether Jessie decides to do this because she genuinely believes it to be a noble sacrifice, or whether she has ulterior, troubled-teen, suicidal motives.
Or maybe I’m the only one who thought that? This is one of the greatest aspects of the book; it’s deceptively simple and shallow, but Rogers uses Jessie’s first-person point of view to great effect, and we often gather that there’s a lot more going on than she is interested in or thinks about – early on, for example, before she decides she wants to sacrifice herself, she mentions hearing on the news that the Chinese embryo program is recruiting thousands of teenage “volunteers,” and it doesn’t occur to Jessie to question whether they really would be volunteers in a country like China. Indeed, we hear very little of how MDS is affecting the rest of the world, because Jessie tends to be consumed with her own thoughts and problems. She is realistically written as both a rational, intelligent young woman, and yet also a girl; a girl who is swayed by small things, who latches onto ideas, and who may very well be deluding herself. Several times she makes what I took to be Freudian slips, talking about how it will soon “all be over,” and how she has to “end it.” My personal impression was that Jessie is actually suicidal, and uses the embryo program as a mask, a way to tell herself that she’s killing herself for something good and noble.
Am I right? I don’t know. It’s either a very subtle book, or I read into something that wasn’t there. I can easily see readers having very different interpretations of it. I found the ending to be bleak and depressing, given my verdict, but others might find it hopeful and uplifting. I’m very interested to hear what Jane Rogers’ vision was.
Regardless, there’s no doubt that it’s a well-written and well-constructed novel. Written from Jessie’s point of view, it’s quite readable and engaging (in fact, it could fit into the YA genre just as easily as the science fiction genre) and I was often compelled to sit down and read it, or keep reading another chapter even though I was ready for sleep. The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a solid literary science fiction novel, raising difficult moral questions and examining complex motives and character struggles in the face of a horrifying future. It’s well worth reading, and a worthy inclusion on the Booker longlist.
On the Guardian Books blog I called the inclusion of this novel “lip service,” which to some degree I still stand by. It’s not that I think the committee worries about offending science fiction writers and wants them to feel included, but I do think the longlist allows them to play with a diverse selection, and draw attention to books which they consider to be worthy of greater acknowledgement but which they have no intention of ever actually awarding the prize to. After all, merely being longlisted for the Booker prize is a much greater honour than many other prizes.
Having now read the novel, I rate its chances more highly, but still low. There is no doubt that it’s a good book – better, in my opinion, than The Stranger’s Child – but it’s also shallow upon first glance, partly science fiction, and has a young adult protagonist. All these things usually cost marks in the eyes of the judging panel. It may very well take a place on the shortlist, but certainly won’t win – just like Oryx & Crake and Never Let Me Go.