Imagine a future, and a not too distant future either, in which an unwanted pregnancy doesn’t just risk stigma or other social and financial consequences but can and will result in the death of the mother. Jane Rogers places us in such a world. Set in the UK a few years from now, an act of biological terrorism has unleashed a plague on the entire world’s population. All women now have a strain of ‘mad cow’ disease dormant in their bodies. It is sparked into life by pregnancy. MDS, or Maternal Death Syndrome, turns a pregnant woman’s brain to grey soup. Death follows in a matter of days, the unborn child dying with her. This then is the situation in which 16-year-old Jessie Lamb finds herself. The end of mankind can only be a generation or two away. The last children will age and then there will be no more and humanity will be lost.
There is, however, one sad and tragic chance for mankind. It comes in the shape of ‘Sleeping Beauties’, young women who sacrifice their lives to bear a child they will never see. Put into a coma during pregnancy, their brain dies but their bodies last full term. Once the baby is born, the mothers are allowed to die. While these children are also infected with MDS there is the possibility that embryos will be created, or engineered, that will be free of the genetic timebomb, just as long as there are young women brave enough to make the ultimate sacrifice for their child.
As is the case with much dystopian fiction, the new world is shown through the eyes of a few, in this case teenager Jessie Lamb is our guide. Her father is among the doctors investigating MDS in the midst of protests, riots and religious zeal. Teenagers have become militant and Jessie is caught up in this, not least as a form of rebellion against her parents. Meanwhile, her aunt goes the other way, becoming part of a new religious movement, a cult that may or may not end up demanding a new type of mass suicide from its female devotees.
Jessie Lamb is a very normal teenager in most other ways, dealing with school and boyfriends. Her fumblings with boys now have an added frisson – the real danger of an unwanted pregnancy. New barriers are erected between the sexes due to the fear of MDS and while this is yet another problem for teenagers to overcome, for others it leads to a sexual division between men and women or to a predatory upsurge in rape as a weapon. There are victims in this near future world and they are women. Female dead number in their millions.
The Testament of Jessie Lamb is one of those marmite novels. Winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award for 2012 and longlisted for the Man Booker in 2011, it clearly has much support amongst many critics and readers. However, the novel left me cold. I had been counting down the days until the publication of the book and so it was all the more disappointing to discover that I could not bear to spend time in the company of Jessie Lamb. With everything going on around her and in the world, she is still fixated on the same old issues – boys, sex, peer pressure, rebellion against parents – which, while no doubt realistic, do not make for an interesting read. I’ve read quite a bit of Young Adult fiction and I was a teenager once but, while I could recognise elements of the younger me in Jessie Lamb, her selfishness irritated me to such a degree that I couldn’t wait for the novel to finish. Fortunately, it’s not a long one.
The novel moves between Jessie’s past and present, exploring how she came to make the choices she did and their cost. However, not a shred of growing up does Jessie do during this time. She never explores the point of view of anyone else, especially of those she hurts. Perhaps it’s because of this lack of empathy from Jessie that none of the other characters have much colour or substance.
While the world building is excellently done – and interesting to find it focused on the UK – I felt let down by its subject. Also, as a woman, I was disappointed with the air of martyrdom or heroism surrounding Jessie’s character. Like Age of Miracles, The Testament of Jessie Lamb has not been marketed as a YA novel which is fine but it does rather create problems as how else to classify it. It certainly has too many holes to be science fiction. But my overriding impression of The Testament of Jessie Lamb is tedium, aggravated by the two-dimensional characterisation.
For the other point of view, I recommend you read this review from Robin’s Books.