Monday, August 20, 2012

Review: The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers
Published : Sandstone Press (2011), Harper Perennial (2012)
Awards Won : Arthur C. Clarke Award

The Book :

A rogue virus that kills pregnant women has been let loose in the world, and nothing less than the survival of the human race is at stake.

Some blame the scientists, others see the hand of God, and still others claim that human arrogance and destructiveness are reaping the punishment they deserve. Jessie Lamb is an ordinary sixteen-year-old girl living in extraordinary times. As her world collapses, her idealism and courage drive her toward the ultimate act of heroism. She wants her life to make a difference. But is Jessie heroic? Or is she, as her scientist father fears, impressionable, innocent, and incapable of understanding where her actions will lead?

Set in a world irreparably altered by an act of biological terrorism, The Testament of Jessie Lamb explores a young woman's struggle to become independent of her parents. As the certainties of her childhood are ripped apart, Jessie begins to question her parents' attitudes, their behavior, and the very world they have bequeathed her.”

The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a difficult novel for me to review.  While it is thought provoking, certain aspects of the novel left me feeling very frustrated. I can see the appeal of the work for the young adult audience, but I think this is a book that should be coupled with some mature discussion of the ideas and themes it contains.

Warning: There are some spoilers of the novel’s contents in the review below concerning “Jessie’s ultimate act of heroism”.

My Thoughts:

The story is told through the journal of Jessie Lamb, who is a member of the last generation to be born before the worldwide onset of Maternal Death Syndrome (MDS), which has a 100% fatality rate for pregnant women.  Facing the very possible end of the human race, I think that the various human reactions are believable. There are many activist groups, but their actions often seem unfocused or based on wishful thinking. Jessie and her peers share a ‘grown-ups are stupid and evil’ attitude, and they blame adults for creating all society’s problems.  Adult scientists are struggling to find a way to cure or circumvent the disease, but others blame science for creating the disease in the first place.  One possible response to MDS is known as the “Sleeping Beauty” program, where young, female volunteers are put into a coma so that they can trade their lives to give birth.

I think Jessie is probably an accurate representation of a certain type of 16-year-old, but reading from her point of view was a real chore. Jessie seems incredibly immature and she has a very limited theory of mind. In other words, I think Jessie is just on the verge of understanding that other people have thoughts and feelings separate from her own. As a result, she is childishly self-centered and has little patience for anything that doesn’t revolve around her. She is also almost completely incapable of imagining how her decisions and actions will affect the people she loves.  I appreciated the effectiveness of her portrayal, but I still found her to be a highly unlikeable and frustrating protagonist.

Jessie Lamb’s major decision is to volunteer for the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ program, and seeing her thought process raises serious questions about whether her consent to the program is even valid. Her off-hand comments throughout the text lead me to believe that Jessie is not honest with herself about the motivations behind her volunteering.  While she sometimes thinks about saving the human race by creating a baby, her mind seems to frequently focus on what a relief it will be to die.  For example, here she explains her thoughts on volunteering:

“Sometimes I feel like my brain will explode and I want to bash a nail into my head to let some of it out-- … And when I remember I’m volunteering and imagine the injection, and everything draining away from me—it makes me feel peaceful.” ~p. 138

Jessie constantly frames her chosen death as a noble and heroic sacrifice, but all of these little things make it seem as though she simply wants to commit suicide in a way that is painless and publicly admirable.  Jessie’s constant glamorization of suicide, in the absence of any clear statement in the opposite direction, left me feeling uneasy about what final impression would be left by the story.

In an interview after the novel, I was able to read an interview with Jane Rogers, discussing her intention for The Testament of Jessie Lamb. If I understood correctly, Rogers intended to show the thought process of a young fundamentalist who chooses to give their life for a cause that they believe will positively impact the world.  She was particularly interested in the shift of power between the child and his/her parents that this conviction gradually caused. 

Rogers said that she considered writing a story featuring a suicide bomber, but she feared that readers would then come to the story having pre-judged the protagonist.  I think it was a good decision to frame her story in a fictional future, where a fictional catastrophe created an extreme situation.  Jessie’s decision has no real-world counterpart, so readers can view Jessie without pre-formed prejudices.  I don’t think Rogers wanted a situation where one could easily say “Jessie’s in the right” or “Jessie’s parents have it right”. Rogers seemed most interested in showing how Jessie came to the point of making such an extreme decision, and how her decision affected her relationships with the people around her.  From that perspective, whether Jessie’s decision is right or wrong, or even whether it is ultimately useful for the world, is beside the point.

My Rating: 4/5

The Testament of Jessie Lamb was in some ways a frustrating book to read, and it doesn’t offer any easy answers.  What it does offer is an often-irritating view into the inner workings of the mind of a suicidal 16-year-old idealist.  Jessie’s immaturity and the carelessness with which she treats the people who love her is almost painful to read.  I appreciated the novel as a look into the thought process that could lead a young girl to decide to throw away her life for a cause, and as an exploration of how that decision alters the balance of power between the girl and her parents. The story steers deliberately around any moral judgment of Jessie’s behavior, but I wish there had been more discussion within the story of the morality and ethicality of Jessie and her right to make such a decision. 

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