Jane Rogers’ entry into the over-harvested field of YA dystopian/apocalypse novels made the shortlist for the Booker Prize and won the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Unlike many other books in the genre, this story ignores the big picture. We’re seeing the potential end of the world from the perspective of an emotionally-charged teenager, with the emphasis on the choices she makes. The character, her world, and the issues will strike very close to home for many readers.
Title: The Testament of Jessie Lamb
Author: Jane Rogers
First published in 2011 (Sandstone Press)
Published by HarperCollins in 2012.
ISBN: 0062130803, 978-0062130808
In the very near future, a bioengineered virus turns pregnancy into a death sentence.1 Sixteen-year-old Jessie Lamb must come of age in a world where humanity has no apparent future—and the circumstances lead her to make a terrible choice.2
The novel may have a narrator with single-minded resolve, but the novel’s perspective is not simple-minded. We understand Jessie’s rationale; we also know why her parents oppose her decision. And her moments of greatest triumph, as she sees them, have been undercut by the plausibly problematic motives of the people who assist her. I found a couple of moments with the scientist working with her as chilling as any of the moments detailing her captivity.
Beyond some overly obvious symbolism (in a book with a more realistic feel, Jessie being a sacrificial Lamb goes over the top), the book’s greatest strength becomes, at times, a weakness.
I like the fact that we don’t get the big picture; this is a book about one person’s experience of an impending apocalypse she cannot comprehend. However, we spend the book trapped in the mindset of a headstrong and precocious sixteen-year-old girl. This grows tiresome.
I test the bike locks again. They are the clear blue plastic coated type, inside the plastic you can see silvery wire. He’s wound one three times around each ankle and locked it, like bangles. And threaded the third through the other two then looped it rond and locked it. The circlets round each leg are too tight to slide over my ankles. I can only move my feet six inches apart. It makes me shuffle like a prisoner in a chain gang. I have to keep adjusting the circlets otherwise the one the joining-lock is fixed to pulls wider and the others get tighter and bite into me.
He left me a bucket with a lid and toilet roll, but it’s hard to use because I can’t get my feet wide enough apart to squat properly. He has left me a pad and pencil for entertainment… (1)
Story: 4/6 You will have a pretty good idea where this book is going to end, and you may not be happy about it.
Characterization: 4/6 I didn’t always accept Jessie’s reasoning, but I found her believable. She is, however, not a typical sixteen-year-old, and we have to accept certain conventions associated with first-person narrators.
Some people will find the various political groups with which Jessie interacts—religious fundamentalists, radical feminists, and animal rights activists, among others—extreme and simplified to the point of parody. Perhaps, but the fringes of any movement tend to become so, especially when the young get a hold of ideologies. Consider the most bizarre opinions you’ve encountered in the political realm (try reading a few Youtube comments); imagine what they might become if irrefutable evidence showed that we faced extinction within a generation.3
That said, the secondary characters and their politics lack much depth.
Emotional Response: 5/6 The book is intense and often disturbing, if somewhat uneven.
Overall score: 5/6 Jessie Lamb alludes to many real-world issues and while this becomes obvious at points, I didn’t find it overbearing. Never mistake the simple solutions posed by some characters for the novel’s thesis.
Don’t go looking for elaborate, original world-building, either. We see some technology that isn’t quite available yet, but we’re not far in the future, and the impending disaster is relatively recent news. Still, I’m touched by the image of Jessie contemplating the day when “unpruned trees would grow into a tangled thicket, the bees would swarm, and winter gales would lift slates from the roof again. Then…[she] imagined an old crone hunched over a fire gnawing a wizened apple. The last human being” (190).
In total, The Testament of Jessie Lamb receives 31/42
1. Theories abound concerning the origin of the virus but, thankfully, the book never confirms any of them.
2. I’m using the word in its historic sense. See also, terrific and terrifying.
3. Of course, I would expect more truly nihilistic groups, such as the thugs who start behaving with impunity, but that isn’t Lamb’s peer group. She hangs with the way, like, political crowd, you know, and these teens now have more motive to try and create their own lifestyles and living spaces.