The Testament of Jessie Lamb

I must confess, I love my little book group. Meeting on the first Tuesday of every month at a lovely jubbly little café in heart if Manchester we never fail to have a good old catch up, bookish natter and a beer or two for good measure. Running since April this year we’ve amassed a nice mixed group of people, all (crucially) passionate about reading and have had, as a result, what I think has been a nice mix of books so far. Classics, latest releases, fantastic, rubbish, you name it, we have experienced and discussed.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb, from my point of view at least, unfortunately turned out to be the most rubbish of all. (Yes, even topping you, Elizabeth Gaskell..) Although most of us were quite perplexed as to how this novel made it onto the Man Booker Shortlist back in 2011 (and win the Arthur C Clarke award in 2012!) ironically Rogers’ terrifying dystopian future, although clunkily written, provided us with a bit of food for thought and proved to be the most successful book group discussion to date….

Canongate : paperback : 2012 : fiction : 308 pages
Jessie Lamb lives in the Manchester of today. On the face of it a fairly normal teenage girl living a fairly regular middle class existence with her loving parents. however, as can only be the case and the only vague saving grace of the novel…things aren’t as they might seem at first glance. The human race is hurtling towards extinction; the victim of an uncompromising virus called MDS, otherwise known as Maternal Death Syndrome (yes, it is as depressing as it sounds); an inescapable, fatal disease that attacks all pregnant women on earth, rendering useless our ability to procreate.

As we see the world through Jessie’s eyes, it seems that the bio-terrorists have achieved their goal. Ordinary life is rapidly disintegrating. Faced with oblivion, the most extreme sides of the human character begin to materialise. Gangs of aggressive men roam the streets, feminists battling programs that deliberately impregnate (and therefore kill) women to find a cure come head to head with animal rights groups. Rogers even throws in a few religious fundamentalists for good measure…lucky us.

Before I launch into why I resented having to read this gubbins so much (even dramatically throwing it across the living room at one point, much to the boyfriend’s dismay) I’d like to try and commit to the tinterweb the reasons why we all felt this book has inadvertently become that of the award-winning variety. What Jane Rogers’ does betray here is a head full of really interesting ideas. Ideas that, even if you hate the book, do remain with you for a few days after putting this down. For the most fearful among us, the concept of the human race being subject to bio-terrorism on this scale does seem to lie within the realm of possibility. We do have to die out at some point after all, however depressing that thought may be. Exploring how this might happen is a genius idea for a novel and setting the story in bog-standard English environs should help to reinforce the entire ‘could happen to us’ intention of the whole book.

Trouble is, none of that is any good if it’s badly executed. Although some members of the group had read and enjoyed Rogers’ work in the past, all agreed that Jessie sadly proved to be both an irritating and largely unconvincing narrator. Clunking along, I felt that the book became less concerned about the fate of the entire world and more centered on teenage procrastination. Wanting to sacrifice herself to the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ program which, although killing her, will produce a none-MDS baby and thus give the world a glimmer of hope for the future, I should have been sold. Needless to say I wasn’t. Feeling her motives for self-sacrifice were selfish, senseless and ill thought-out I found myself on the side of Jessie’s parents, particularly her father who goes as far as to imprison her, steering her away from suicide. How, after all, does a girl of sixteen arrive at such an extreme conclusion?  A lot of time staring out of the window looking at the trees it seems……*yawn*

I did try to take a step back from my frustration, tried not to let the allusion to The Handmaid’s Tale made by some noggin on the back annoy me too much – to no avail. Is this supposed to be young adult fiction? Are the references to my hometown just making the whole story a little too close to home? Or am I just not a dystopian kind of girl? (with my lacklustre response to Never Let Me Go it could seem that way..)

I think not. This is miserable tosh. I’m afraid I don’t believe in your world Miss Rogers, nor your heroine…especially not when they live right on my dystopian doorstep…..

14 thoughts on “The Testament of Jessie Lamb

  1. I have heard about this book all over the place and don’t believe that until now I had no idea what it was about and also no idea that it’s set in Manchester. I am a sucker for novels with local settings and have to admit that the premise intrigues me despite your less than enthusiastic review!

    I am determined to get along to the Manchester Book Club in 2013 – my job changes in February and I will be working far more sociable hours than now so it should be much easier for me to get there 🙂

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    1. Fingers crossed Marie, would be lovely to see you! Hurrah for sociable hours. We have quite a strong group going now so it would be a good juncture to start 🙂
      Eee, as you might have guessed I hated this book. Which doesn’t happen very often. Lots to talk about though. Although I usually love a bit of my local colour in books the casual references to Deansgate, etc in a book I didn’t enjoy just got on my wick! :-O

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    1. There are some big topics here – despite my frustration with Jessie (and I suppose the most convincing thing about her is that she was annoying! ;-)) – I must admit the book remained with me for a good few days of pondering. Perhaps it’s the image of these things happening in my hometown that made it linger….

      Still didn’t like it though 😀 ! I’m glad you did! 🙂

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    1. Hi! It’s nice isn’t it? I actually can’t find any info about he artist but it’s the cover of Sandstone Press’ edition of the novel. I suppose it should say somewhere on the actual copy (mine’s the one with the girl on the front unfortunately :))

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  2. Hahahaha! This has made me laugh as this was exactly how I felt about this book when I read it, only I couldn’t even be bothered to write up my thoughts on it because they would have been a lot less open to the reasons why it sort of was a good idea than you! I just didn’t get it, lots and lots of people have though, which is nice, for them.

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    1. I did wonder you know! I actually checked to see if you’d read it to see what you thought and had an inkling you might not have enjoyed it. Nice for those who enjoyed it but winning an AWARD? Why!? :-O

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