Lamb to the Slaughter? – ‘The Testament of Jessie Lamb’ by Jane Rogers

‘The Testament of Jessie Lamb’ is a dystopian novel, comparable with the finest in the genre. It particularly reminded me of Meg Rosoff’s excellent ‘How I Live Now’. It explores the effects of a global catastrophe on a single family as well as the society in which they live. It balances the two perfectly, playing out a family tragedy against a solid and believable background of the world in crisis.

Like all good dystopian novels, the change in society is a simple one. Pregnancy has become a fatal condition. A dormant virus has spread across the globe, that means when a woman becomes pregnant, her suppressed immune system makes her susceptible to a fatal ‘mad cow’ type affliction. It is called Maternal Death Syndrome or MDS. The act of creating life brings with it death. It’s a simple premise but its manifestations are manifold, going well beyond the obvious halting of the human race.

The proposal by scientists of a ‘Sleeping Beauties’ solution, polarises the nation (the novel is set in the UK). The solution involves pregnant mothers being kept in a coma until their babies reach term. The babies can be delivered healthily and the mothers are then allowed to die. Although new naturally conceived babies will be infected with MDS, there are millions of uninfected embryos held for IVF programmes across the globe. These embryos are the great hope of the world, though bringing them to term will mean death for their carriers.

Opinions on the virus, its origins and how to treat it are split on religious, political and ideological grounds. A number of factions appear, all convinced their interpretation of the situation is correct. All, to a greater or lesser degree, have a militant wing. The various viewpoints are well thought out. It is possible to sympathise with each, and their interactions with one another are wholly credible.

Jessie joins the disaffected youth; those who are the least responsible for the world’s predicament, but who will bear most of the burden (it’s like a more drastic banking crisis). Yet even here there are divisions and agendas. There are also lots of hormones. No novel featuring teenagers can pass without sex being on the agenda, and with potentially fatal consequences there is an added frisson to Jessie’s clumsy relationships with the opposite sex. Rogers is spot on with her description of the stumblings and fumblings of adolescent love. The assumptions made, the mistakes, the regrets and the missed opportunities, are all perfectly captured.

Much of the book centres around Jessie’s relationship with her Dad. Sixteen-year-old girls and their dads are always going to clash, but with the world collapsing around their ears the family arguments take on additional meaning. Jessie’s surly despair of her father’s lack of understanding of her predicament took me right back to my own teenage days. In her interactions with her dad, Jessie is exasperating. She is selfish and uncaring of how actions affect her family. Her self-absorption threatens to spoil the book, but does not. Jessie is unlikeable, but Rogers gives her a vulnerable core that redeems her. Rogers cleverly makes Jessie’s decision making process reasonable on one level, yet entirely unreasonable on another; she is real and believable in a way that is rarely found in dystopian fiction.

‘The Testament of Jessie Lamb’, is sure to be popular with fans of dystopian fiction, but I think it has many elements that transcend genre. It’s central theme of childbirth and the role of women in society give it added weight over many ‘end of days’ novels. This is an excellent novel, and one that I can see generating masses of discussion in book groups across the land.

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