In Jessie Lamb’s world there are no Thought Police or Republic of Gilead. Her comfortable suburb of Manchester is entirely recognisable. Jane Rogers' eighth novel makes a point of co-opting the ordinary, the everyday world of scrambled eggs, mum and dad’s arguments, college relationships and teenage loyalties. However, in Jessie’s world – a few months into the future – women have been infected by a virus known as maternal death syndrome (MDS). Once MDS is contracted, any woman who becomes pregnant develops a fatal form of CJD, dying within days. The human race must confront its demise.
The novel has echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale and Children Of Men, but it is the 360-degree realisation of 21st century community in the process of fracture, told in the voice of an assured, intelligent 16 year old that makes Jessie’s story so captivating. This is a nightmare in waiting; society still functions as the adult world looks to science for solutions. But for groups of young people like Jessie, science is the cause. Their search for answers drives them into the arms of extremist groups, each of whom offers a form of protest against a single element of societal breakdown.
As a parent, the novel resonates most powerfully with that moment you realise your own kids’ view of the world is fed by the complex reality of their own lives, entirely independent of your parental influence. The smart thing is to stand back and listen, however when Jessie makes a decision which could benefit humanity, but which her parents regard as a needless sacrifice, they cannot help but act on her behalf. The novel is at its most powerful handling the complex mix of young adult/parent relationships.
Much hangs on the reader’s relationship with Jessie as she fights to assert her independence, discovering her own sense of power to challenge adult conventions and certainties, particularly those of her geneticist father. She is not alone. Teenagers are increasingly drawn towards active protest; it is their world and their future adults have effectively destroyed.
Superficially, the most resonant aspect of The Testament Of Jessie Lamb might seem to be the fear of science getting out of control and creating a dystopian future for us all, but Jessie is such an engaging narrator that the novel offers far more than a pale ‘what if science screws up?’ scenario. The conclusion is both shocking and inevitable with power ultimately in Jessie’s hands.
The Testament Of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers is published by Sandstone Press.