Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb

The more I think about The Testament of Jessie Lamb, the more I am impressed by it. This is a novel about the end of the human race with a teenaged narrator (one, it turns out, who is capable of the most singleminded fundamentalism). The narratorial voice is so authentic for a character of this sort that in the early stages of my reading I thought it just wasn’t very good. I was wrong; it is.

A shorter version of this appeared in the Indian Express last weekend.

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If you want to wipe out a species, targeting the females is a good place to start. In James Tiptree Jr.’s 1977 short story “The Screwfly Solution” a mysterious epidemic spreads across the earth that causes men to murder women. At the end of the story we learn what has caused this state of affairs, and that it was intended to end the species. It is too late; by this point the human race is doomed.

In Jane Rogers’ The Testament of Jessie Lamb the cause behind the spread of ‘MDS’ is never discovered, and is never (beyond idle speculation by the characters) the focus of the book. What matter are the results of this disease; MDS, or ‘Maternal Death Syndrome’ has now infected everyone on the planet, and any woman who gets pregnant will die.

Jessie, Rogers’ narrator, is a teenaged girl. Over the course of a few months she moves from indifference towards MDS (she thinks of it as normal and only expresses irritation at the mass funerals for women), through an involvement with various political groups, to a willingness to take radical steps to save the human race. Her “testament” is told from captivity; the identity of her captor, hidden at first, comes as an unpleasant shock. Her account of the events that led up to this moment is interspersed with reflections on her prison.

How do you wait for the world to end? From the beginning of The Testament of Jessie Lamb it’s clear that unless something miraculous happens the human race is going to die out within a couple of generations. And (as Jessie thinks in the context of MDS) “the knowing it was coming must be the worst part”. Rogers documents various reactions to this knowing; Jessie’s mother tries to get on with life as usual, her aunt joins a religious cult, her friends join various feminist and environmentalist groups. Young people, angry with the mismanagement of the world by “grown-ups” (the awkwardly petulant teenagers are Rogers’ biggest weakness here) form a separatist movement.

The best solution that science can come up with is to sacrifice young women (“Sleeping Beauties”) – implanting them with embryos on the understanding that the women will die. The religious groups think this is wonderful; the feminists think it’s barbaric – and Jessie is tempted by the prospect of saving the species. At this point it becomes clear why the book is prefaced with a quote from Euripedes’ Iphegenia at Aulis. Jessie’s name also begins to seem ominous – the similarity to “Jesus” might be a coincidence, but Jesus is also the “lamb” of God. Late in the book Jessie’s father describes a girl choosing to become a Sleeping Beauty as a “lamb to the slaughter”.

The Christ analogy ties in with a broader set of references to Christianity. In a plot as apocalyptic as the end of humanity, it’s unsurprising that there should be explicit religious overtones. And so Jessie’s story is a “testament”, and the farm where she takes refuge is “Eden”. The religious group to which her aunt belongs are known as the “Noahs”.

At first Jessie’s narrative is rather underwhelming. But as the reader approaches the later stages of the book it becomes clear that this is a brilliantly crafted piece of work – Jessie’s frustration at the adults around her, her conviction of her own rightness and her attraction towards heroic sacrifice all ring true. It gradually becomes clear that the text is capable of a complexity that is far beyond the simplicity of Jessie’s own thoughts.  I’d like to think it’s a rare reader who will agree with Jessie’s choice or the reasoning behind it. Underneath it all are the twinned associations of martyrs and suicide bombers. Yet we see every step of the road to this decision. And as awful as it is we are made, after a fashion, to respect it.

The result is a deeply uncomfortable piece of writing. The last few years have seen plenty of dystopian novels featuring teenaged protagonists (and I do wonder how this book would have been received had it been published as young-adult literature). But reading The Testament of Jessie Lamb, it’s easy to see how this science fiction novel published by a small press should have made it to this year’s Booker long list. It is outstanding.

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