Genre: Contemporary earth-based science-fiction
This is Jane Rogers eighth book, but it’s the first one that I’ve read by her. The Testament of Jessie Lamb was a bestseller and Man Booker nominee when it came out in 2012 and I’m ashamed to say it’s been languishing on my Kindle since then. But at last I recently got round to reading it and I’m very glad that I did. A reviewer writing in Scotland’s Herald newspaper described it as The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood) colliding with The Children of Men (PD James) and to me that seems very apt.
It’s a deeply unsettling tale set in the near future and tells of humanity facing extinction. Due to a bio-toxin having been released, presumably by bio-terrorists although this isn’t fully explained, a disease known as Maternal Death Syndrome or MDS now afflicts any woman who gets pregnant. The disease is a sort of cross between CJD and AIDS and is always fatal. Research into a cure is ongoing but in the meantime all that can be done to protect fertile women is to give them a contraceptive implant. And with no babies being born, humanity’s future existence looks to be doomed.
The story is told by a first-person narrator, teenager Jessie Lamb. She experiences all the usual teenage angsty stuff – parents who don’t understand her, issues with friends, the rush and the awkwardness of first love, and a need to strike out, rebel and be herself. But this is all overlaid and undermined by the presence of the deadly MDS.
When a vaccine that will ensure very young, i.e. under sixteen-and-a half-years-old, surrogate mothers will be able to be implanted with and carry to term pre-MDS frozen embryos, it seems like there might be hope. But it will come at a price. The vaccine only protects the babies. The surrogate mothers will still succumb to MDS and they will die.
Jessie decides to volunteer herself as a surrogate. It’s part selfless act, part naive, part rebellion and it’s a heart-wrenching read as the reader follows Jessie’s feelings and her parent’s and friend’s reactions to her decision.
The author raises other questions about how human’s have messed up. There are subplots dealing with green and ecological matters, with vegetarianism and animal cruelty. They didn’t seem to me to be entirely necessary and sometimes they were a bit clunky in their intrusion into the main story. But that would be my only complaint.
Type of read: Overall this is an excellent, thought-provoking and intriguing, if rather scary, read. Read it in a well-lit room with a dram or two of good whisky to hand.
The Testament of Jessie Lamb is published by Canongate and is available as a paperback, an ebook and as an audio-book.