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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Review: The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

Emotionally intense dystopian focused on fertility and childbirth

Comparisons are being made to The Handmaid's Tale (which I love) and Children of Men (which I haven't read), largely because this is a near-future dystopia in which fertility and childbearing is the focus (as well as it winning the Arthur C Clarke, which Handmaid's Tale also did). The difference here is in the voice, as Jessie Lamb is a 16 yr old girl sharing her story with us in the hope of being understood. She writes in an audience-conscious way (as can be inferred from the title) and her thoughts and feelings are utterly convincing as those of a 16 yr old girl under considerable pressure.

In Jessie's world, women die if they conceive. Everyone carries the illness MDS (maternal death syndrome), which activates in pregnancy, creating a form of CJD (or mad cow disease) and ultimately killing both mother and child. Society is trying desperately to find a way to prevent humanity dying out, allowing the author to raise questions about scientific research, genetic modification, the treatment of women and how teens become involved in politics. For me, a large part of Jane Roger's theme is about the involvement of young people in politics and how relatively easy it is for people to manipulate a cause, although I know from the Amazon reviews that some feel her portrayal of the various political camps in the novel is too one-dimensional. I would argue that this is necessary, as she features several different causes in the novel, all of whom want to make use of Jessie in some way (and would you really want that much of the novel taken up by rounding out the secondary cast?), and also that there is accuracy in this representation, as those who are fanatical make themselves one-dimensional. There is also, I feel, something of the allegory to this novel, and simplified characters are part of this tradition.

I greatly enjoyed this novel and found myself gripped to see how Jessie's tale would end. Again, I would take issue with those who claim the novel is predictable and would suggest that it has an inevitability to it, in the same way that classical tragedy does, but this isn't really the same thing. Any other ending wouldn't be as satisfying, but that for me says that a different ending would be a failure. The various obstacles that Jessie faces, together with the many opportunities for her to take a different course, are what make up the plot.

Overall, I would recommend this novel, although I find categorising it very difficult (it seems to be marketed as literary fiction). Again, a debate exists about whether it is YA or not (although some irritating reviewers on Amazon are using this as a criticism of the book - it's YA because it lacks depth/weight, they feel). For me, I would recommend it to a YA audience: the narrator is 16 and is facing issues centred on what she believes and who she is. I would also recommend it to adults (although that's often true of the sold-as-YA novels I review...) and feel that it offers plenty to think about in an accessible package.

[deleted rant here on how wrong it is that inaccessible 'should' = literary.... :) ]

From the back cover:

Winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award 2012
Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011

Women are dying in their millions. Some blame scientists, some see the hand of God. As she watches her world collapsing, Jessie Lamb decides she wants to make her life count. Would you let your daughter die if it would save the human race?

The Testament of Jessie Lamb is the story of one daughter's heroism and one father's love.

Published July 2012 by Canongate books
My grateful thanks for the review copy via Netgalley
Check out The Testament of Jessie Lamb at Amazon UK

1 comment:

  1. I loved this book and am really glad you've reviewed it. I read it a while back but I can't remeber thinking it lacked depth. What I liked about this novel was that it portrayed a 16 year old negotiating life or death and world-changing choices within a forced,limited timeframe - that's tough and she had lots of dimensions that her mind probably had to condense. In this book's case, the personal really was political. I think it's an adult book that teens will relate to, enjoy, and think about.


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