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….
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…..