Jane Rogers's entry into the over-harvested field of YA dystopian/apocalypse novels made the shortlist for the Man 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. It begins with a sixteen-year-old whose freedom has been restricted:
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)
For entertainment, she begins to write her story.
In the very near future, a bioengineered virus turns pregnancy into a death sentence. Theories abound concerning the origin of the virus but, thankfully, the book never confirms any of them. That's not what the story concerns. Our young protagonist, burdened with the excessively symbolic name of Jessie Lamb, must come of age in a world where humanity has no apparent future—and those circumstances lead her to make a terrible choice.
Initially, like so many teens concerned about the mess adults have made of the world, she investigates politics and protest. Some readers 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. Consider that an elected American official who sat on a science council recently expressed the view that the victims of "legitimate rape" usually don't get pregnant. Or that some countries feel it amounts to justice to flog the victims of legitimate rape. Or that people exist who think the government causes tornadoes. Or just read a few Youtube comments. Now, imagine what those views might become if irrefutable evidence existed indicating we faced extinction within a generation. Of course, I would expect more of the truly nihilistic groups, such as the novel's thugs, who start behaving with impunity, but that isn't Lamb's peer group.
She hangs with the way, like, you know, political crowd, and these teens now have more motive to try and create their own lifestyles and living spaces. Some of them even believe they'll survive the catastrophe. They've heard tantalizing rumors of a woman, somewhere or other, who has survived her pregnancy and delivered a healthy baby. Jessie's friend in the Youth for Independence (YOFI) simply want to set up in vacant houses and live out their lives. Jessie contemplates one of their properties, imagines 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).
Others plan to combat the threat with science. Jessie's father works as a researcher who hopes to find way out of the mess that, as she sees it, science has created. Others have realized that pre-virus frozen embryos can survive the disease, though their implantation will destroy their mother. They seek young women to act as “Sleeping Beauties”—surrogates who will be kept comatose, on life support, until they deliver the next generation.
Jessie starts to find this option appealing, despite the protests of her distraught parents, disbelieving boyfriend, and feminist friends. And that's when her life takes a horrific turn.
Fortunately, while the novel's narrator shows a single-minded resolve, the novel's perspective is not simple-minded. We understand Jessie's rationale; we also know why her others 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.
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. The writer has tried to achieve a balance here; Jessie recalls conversations in remarkable detail, though the characters sound a lot alike. Indeed, the secondary characters lack much depth.
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.
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.
While the book does not simply imitate other recent YA successes, much of the material will be familiar. It recalls, for example, The Handmaid's Tale and Children of Men, though it has its own perspective and audience.
You will have a pretty good idea where this book is going to end, and you may not be happy about it. I don't think the book wants you to be. Lamb makes a decision. Readers will argue about her reasons and the consequences. And that is exactly what Jessie Lamb wants.
The Testament of Jessie Lamb
First published in 2011 (Sandstone Press)
Published by HarperCollins in 2012.
ISBN: 0062130803, 978-0062130808