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Monday, August 29, 2011

"The Testament of Jessie Lamb" by Jane Rogers (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Jane Rogers at Wikipedia
Order "The Testament of Jessie Lamb" HERE

INTRODUCTION: As noted in the recent post discussing novels by Alison Pick, Julian Barnes and Patrick McGuiness, the annual Booker longlist is one the most important sources of books I would probably not hear about otherwise.

So when The Testament of Jessie Lamb appeared on the 2011 list, I became very intrigued by the novel and I decided to read it as soon as possible. The blurb below while generally accurate, is a little misleading in that the novel is a very personal one where Jessie Lamb's tale is more gripping than the world's reaction to the devastating maternal death syndrome aka MDS.

"Women are dying in their millions. Some blame scientists, some see the hand of God, some see human arrogance reaping the punishment it deserves. Jessie Lamb is an ordinary girl living in extraordinary times: as her world collapses, her idealism and courage drive her towards the ultimate act of heroism. If the human race is to survive, it’s up to her.But is Jessie heroic? Or is she, as her father fears, impressionable, innocent, incapable of understanding where her actions will lead? Set just a month or two in the future, in a world irreparably altered by an act of biological terrorism, The Testament of Jessie Lamb explores a young woman’s determination to make her life count for something, as the certainties of her childhood are ripped apart."

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a novel advertised as literary dystopia though first and foremost it is a voice novel which kept me hooked me from the first to the last page with its poignant and emotional style.

Looking at the science fictional aspect of the novel, I had several quibbles with the ideas presented in the book - I believe that the whole setup of the MDS does not really hold water since humanity is way too diverse for something of this finesse to work, but I was fine with it as a thought experiment.

The more serious issue for me was the societal reaction to the MDS, which seemed way too rational and moderate; yes there is panic and hardship in the book, but society still stands and science still gets done, while personally I have doubts that a singularity event like MDS would not cause the total collapse of civilization.

Similarly the way science deals with MDS seemed quite simplistic if you accept the original sophistication of the virus that induced it, so basically these three issues made The Testament of Jessie Lamb more of a "scary tale" for adults rather than "serious sf".

These being said though, the novel is really compelling and its narrator Jessie Lamb of the title comes out as very plausible; a determined girl which is set on making a difference - whether her choices are stupid, courageous, right, wrong, etc is for the reader to determine and I thought her father's arguments quite grounded, so I inclined more towards his position, but not that strongly so to speak.

After a prologue which gives a hint of the future direction of the book and to which we will return in due time, the first paragraph of the novel introduces the heroine:

"I used to be as aimless as a feather in the wind. I thought stuff on the news and in the papers was for grownups. It was part of their stupid miserable complicated world, it didn’t touch me."

Compare the above with Jessie of the future as seen in the prologue:

"The logical thing is to do as he’s asked; to think about it. Indeed. Write it down. Remember it, re-imagine it, gather it together. Because it’ll be proof – won’t it? – proof that you really are doing what you want. Proof that I, Jessie Lamb, being of sound mind and good health, take full responsibility for my decision, and intend to pursue it to its rightful end."

So in a sense the huge change in the world that MDS induces - a real and much more plausible singularity if you want rather than the tech nirvana of the geeks that usually comes under that heading - radically transforms our heroine and you can read the novel as her personal odyssey, though of course there is much more.

The supporting characters - especially her father and her school friends Baz and Sal are also superbly drawn and the world building is excellent assuming you accept the assumptions above.

The combination of normality and madness in the MDS world is finely balanced in the novel and while a lot of the ideology of the book is the expected one, I was surprised a little by the nuanced portrait of science which is the usual culprit with/or religion in such dystopias; sure enough the religious fanatics are there, but there are fanatic environmentalists too, ready to bomb left and right, while Jessie ultimately renounces her "activism" as pointless.

All in all, The Testament of Jessie Lamb (A+) is a worthy Booker addition and a very well written book I would wholly recommend and which I hope will make the shortlist to show that science fiction - however not that original as sf per se - has a place on any literary prize list if the writing style is there.


Bets Davies said...

Color me impressed. On this one you really both managed to hook me on the book and give me very little idea of what goes on in it. Already I can feel Jesse's strong voice.

Liviu said...

When I opened the novel I basically knew only the blurb - never heard about the author before despite that she seems to have some other sort of controversial books that fall into the literary sf spectrum - and the book turned to be a bit different than what I expected in the sense that the voice is so strong that basically everything else is a backdrop and i tried to convey this in the review

The novel is very intense and emotional too.


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