The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers
Review by Brian Herstig
A Look at the Innoncence and Hope of Youth vs. the Perspective and Wisdom of Adults
There is a lot of young adult (YA) dystopian literature out there right now – The Hunger Games comes to mind and a whole slew of like books are being turned into movies right now – some of which I can recommend (The Incarceron duology) and some of which fall apart as they go along (The Maze Runner and The Knife of Never Letting Go were both fantastic first books in their eventual trilogy, but each subsequent book got worse in different ways – the former completely fell apart and didn’t answer any of the questions it posed and the latter aimed far too high and failed.) YA dystopia has played an important part in literature, and science fiction specifically, often serving as a precursor to larger shifts happening in society and writing trends.
How does Lamb fare? Well, it just won the Arthur C. Clarke Award (given for the best science fiction novel first published in the United Kingdom annually) and was on the list of nominees this year for the Man Booker Prize (awarded each year for the best original full-length novel, written in the English language, by a citizen of the British empire.) Heavy pedigree, especially for a “young adult” book. But it was absolutely deserving.
Jane Roger’s novel takes place in a not-too-distant future England. Some type of biological terrorism (which is never revealed fully) has released a horrible virus – maternal death syndrome (MDS). The virus attacks women when they become pregnant and enacts a fast-moving and devastating type of Alzheimer’s, destroying the mother’s brain in a matter of weeks. The ultimate outcome is a death sentence for the human race, as it will be impossible for mother’s to survive to bring babies to term. Like Children of Men before it, the human race is faced with possible extinction. The story takes place through the writing (testament) of 16-year old Jessie Lamb. Jessie is trying to become an adult in a world where procreational sex is a death sentence, her parents marriage is cracked and possibly splitting, there seems no future in sight, and she is learning that growing older isn’t as easy and carefree as she thought. Her father is a scientist and is working with a group of other scientists on a possible short-term solution that will allow a pregnant woman to be put in a permanent vegetative state so that the child can possibly be brought to term.
The focus of the story is really Jessie’s journey to try to become an adult in a world falling apart. She is a fairly responsible teen (especially concerned with environmentalism) and wants to both enter adulthood and find a way to provide hope to the people around her. She does this as she realizes that the adults around her she has always idolized and looked up to are far less than perfect. This is a common theme in YA literature. What Rogers does is create a story that not only has no easy solutions, but can be seen as “right” from both sides, while they each see the other side as clearly “wrong.” Jessie’s parents want to protect her and allow time and science to take its course and find a solution to the virus swirling around them. They do this, and hold out hope, as society begins to fracture and crumble. Jessie wants her life, short as it is or may be, to mean something and stand for hope. She believes one person can make a difference – as do her parents, they just don’t want her to be “the one.”
Ultimately, this is a book that pits the knowledge and perspective of age over the unbridled enthusiasm and impulsiveness of youth. As I read it the emotions and hope – at any cost – of the young people resonated strongly and reminded me of my kids and their friends who are in a hurry to grow up, be adults, make “adult” decisions, and make their mark. And I also STRONGLY identified with the adults in the book who plead for patience and for time and science to develop. Mostly, I understood their desire to see someone step up and be the first of the martyrs, just not THEIR child. It was a heartbreaking, conflicting situation to be in, seeing both sides and understanding how both were true and real for the characters yet each had implications for their choices and their relationship.
This is the perfect book for a parent-child book club. Be warned – it has virtually no action and is a character and plot driven novel. I found it to be extremely compelling, expertly written, and very insightful in a non-preachy way. But it is not easy and not intended for children under the age of 13 or so. It is a novel that needs – and deserves – to be discussed after it is read.
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