The Testament of Jessie Lamb – Jane Rogers

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The Testament of Jessie Lamb Long listed for 2011 Booker Prize

Five words from the blurb: women, dying, girl, innocent, heroism

The Testament of Jessie Lamb is one of the most frustrating books I’ve ever read. I was gripped by the fast paced plot, but internally screaming at the frustrating actions of the narrator, the unlikely global events and the numerous bizarre plot twists.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb is set in the near future, at a time when an act of biological terrorism has caused all women to die during pregnancy. This leads the human race into imaging a time when there will no longer be any children, when the aging population will have to support themselves and when they will eventually have to face the extinction of the human race. The premise appealed to me greatly, but unfortunately the book concentrated on a seemingly bizarre solution to this problem (minor spoiler – highlight to read) - teenage girls who don’t see any point of living if they can’t have children (roll-eyes) decide to sacrifice themselves to create a new generation. ARRRGGHH!!

It is hard to explain what frustrated me most about this book, but I’ll try my best! In a similar way to The Unit, I had problems with the basic premise of the story and I was unable to suspend my disbelief because there were so many holes in the plot. I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t read the book so I’ll just give a couple of examples from the first section: Why would terrorists want to wipe out the entire human race? Normally terrorists just want to kill a certain group of society. Why couldn’t they save the women by using contraception/the morning after pill/hysterectomies?  

The most annoying aspect of this book was the narrator, Jessie Lamb. Her teenage outlook on life had me internally screaming at the pages. Everything problem had a simple solution and she seemed to think she had the power to save the world by herself. Her ideas were one-dimensional and failed to take into account the complexity of the adult world. I have had similar issues with teenage protagonists in the past (eg. The Stars in the Bright Sky, Pigeon English) and can see that people like this exist, but they drive me nuts. Reading about them is not an enjoyable experience. (Also note the awkward sentence structure in this passage).

We had spent hours discussing it. Why shouldn’t anyone over 10 should be able to elect representatives and have them stand up for us in parliament? How else could kids have power? But Nat and Lisa said why would you want to join in their stupid system. And Lisa said why did Iain  care, he already had the vote and it’d done a fat lot of good.

I’d describe this as a good YA book – one that allows teenagers to think about a few issues relevant to them. I admit to being dragged along by the pace of the plot, but as an adult reader I was unsatisfied. My negative reaction to this book proves that it has affected me on some level and that is surely better than the boredom/indifference produced by others. I’d therefore recommend it as the perfect book group choice – I guarantee it will create a lively debate!

If you enjoy reading about life from the perspective of teenagers then I’m sure you’ll appreciate this book, but I can’t understand why it made the Booker long list.

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22 Comments

  1. Louise says:

    Sounds a bit like a not-very-good version of Children of Men. The plot spoiler element of the story sounds awful, really not a great message for young woment to be reading. Great review though…

    1. Jackie says:

      Louise, I haven’t read Children of Men which is perhaps a good thing as perhaps I’d then be complaining about a lack of originality too ;-)

  2. David says:

    I’ve been looking forward to your review of since seeing your comment mentioning it on KevinfromCanada’s blog the other day.
    I’ve still got a few chapters to go, but I agree with you almost entirely, especially the YA comment. I’ve read a couple of Jane Rogers’ novels before and I quite like her writing (admittedly one of the main attractions is that she lives about 5 miles from me and sets most of her books locally) but this book isn’t anywhere near as good. Rogers said on her Facebook page that none of the major publishers would touch ‘The Testament of Jessie Lamb’ and I can’t say I’m that surprised.

    Rogers asks “what if?” and it’s a good what if, a terrifying scenario, and one that (as with 70s TV series ‘Survivors’) she sensibly throws us straight into the middle of without dwelling too much on the cause. But for me it’s a what if that she largely fails to answer – she presents us with a world where the human race has got about 80 years left, and how do people react? Some of them sit around and talk about it some of the time. A few stroppy teenagers decide everything is the fault of adults and they’d be better off without them (not much change there then). Some just move to Glossop. But most people seem to carry on exactly as normal – maybe we would, but somehow I can’t see it. And with such a major issue looming over all there lives, I was slightly baffled why issues like vivisection and carbon footprints figured so large.
    In fairness to the author, she does talk about contraception – all the girls and women have Implanlon implants which does beg the question (unless they are all doing as Mandy does) why are so many continuing to get pregnant?

    It doesn’t help that I can’t believe in any of the characters (even Jessie) enough to care about them or what becomes of them. Most of the peripheral characters sound identical, and Jessie’s parents often seem to exist solely to be mouthpieces for two opposing points of view – they don’t actually talk like anyone I’ve ever met.

    I haven’t got to the end yet, but I also have a slight problem with the way it is told in flashback since (although I’m hoping there’s a bit of a twist) all along the reader knows where the story is heading. And I’m impressed by the way Jessie remembers verbatim all these conversations that she is writing down in her testament.

    Ah yes, Jessie… Jessie does not sound like a 16 year old. She sounds like a creative writing assignment. Which makes sense, that is how she would write, but how I wish her dad had given her a dictaphone instead of a pad and pencil! At least then she might have spoken like an authentic teenager of today rather than one from 20 or 30 years ago. Rogers has set the novel in a very specific (and real) geographical location and she should follow the logic of that and have Jessie sound like someone from an area that is largely pretty poor and not that nice. As it is, sometimes she sounds much younger than sixteen, and at other times (in her descriptions of things and in quieter moments) she sounds altogether too writerly. And as in the latter part of the novel she has reached that point where she is making the decision about volunteering and taking control of her own life (becoming an adult essentially) she has started to write exactly like a Jane Rogers novel – which is an improvement and reads much better, but is at odds with the voice we’d become used to.

    The book does very much read like something written for teenagers – always a risk when a book has an adolescent narrator – except that I often have to read books written for 11-15 year olds for work purposes, and most of them sound much more authentic than this.

    There are aspects of the book I’m enjoying and it has certainly improved as I approach the end. It’s very readable, the scenario is interesting, and it has a certain extra appeal for me as I know like the back of my hand most of the places she writes about which has made me think: what if this was really happening on the streets of Ashton, Mossley and Manchester? So I don’t consider it a complete failure, but my problems with it far outweigh the aspects I’ve enjoyed. Like you, I am mystified by its presence on the Booker longlist.

    1. Jackie says:

      David, Thank you for such a long and thoughtful comment!

      I agree with almost everything you say too :-)

      “most people seem to carry on exactly as normal – maybe we would, but somehow I can’t see it.”
      I can’t see it either. I don’t know what we would do and having just read an entire book on the subject that is a very bad thing. I normally love these “what if” books (especially Saramago’s Blindness) for the way they make me think about various situations, but Jessie Lamb was entirely unconvincing. I’m sure the general population would do more than calmly discuss the situation over coffee.

      I also agree about the global warming etc. The campaign subjects really seemed to jar with the surrounding text and I couldn’t see their relevance at all.

      The contraception issue was talked about in the book, but women still somehow managed to get pregnant and this wasn’t fully explained. I’d have thought that it would be fairly easy to remove any undesired pregnancy to save the women though. This is just another of the numerous plot holes that didn’t make sense to me. If you’re going to create a new scenario then everything needs to be water tight or the reader won’t believe it.

      “Most of the peripheral characters sound identical”
      That is another good point. I couldn’t form a mental image of any of the characters and none of them seemed like well-rounded individuals with flaws as well as positive sides. I also agree that many of them seemed to be present just to reel off their side of an argument – not because they were naturally present in the environment. It all felt a bit contrived.

      “Jessie does not sound like a 16 year old.”
      Sometimes she does, sometimes she doesn’t. I agree that there is no consistency in her voice. I think a regional dialect might have helped to make her stand out, but just sticking with the teenage slang would have been better (although I’d have probably found that even more annoying!)

      I agree that there were some enjoyable aspects to this book, but it all seemed uneven, unpolished and frustrating. I hope you like the ending. :-)

  3. stujallen says:

    I felt out the longlist this is the one I least want to try ,I jsut can’t see me connecting with it Jackie ,when I read about it I knew there was something along the lines I d seen recently it was the unit ,all the best stu

    1. Jackie says:

      Stu, It is a shame because this was the book I was most excited about. Perhaps there is some weird anti-effect going on and becasue you don’t like the premise you’d enjoy reading it? Stranger things have happened ;-)

  4. Sandy says:

    All of your rationale makes total sense to me, and in no way do I want to read this now. I get very frustrated with teenagers in YA novels. Some are fine…they have their act together, try to make good decisions, etc. Now I do realize that most teens are not like this! Most of them do make bad decisions and act self-absorbed and silly because that is just how they learn and grow up. I still don’t like reading about them though. I get plenty of that in my home as it is.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy,
      “Most of them do make bad decisions and act self-absorbed and silly” This is why I often struggle with YA novels. Very realistic, but I hate reading about them. I prefer my characters to have good common sense. :-)

  5. Annabel says:

    Children of Men came to mind too reading your post (sans spoiler) – it’s a great book. This is one is next on my list…

    1. Jackie says:

      Annabel, It is sounding as though I should get hold of Children of Men. I look forward to seeing your thoughts on this one.

      1. Teresa says:

        The premise also made me think of Children of Men, which I just read and wasn’t crazy about. But I think I’m in the minority on that one :)

  6. Jenners says:

    I almost always struggle with YA books … and this premise sounds really familiar to another YA book that I read reviews of … can’t recall the title though.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenners, I have a very hit/miss relationship with YA books. Some are fantastic, some not :-(

  7. mrs.B says:

    Oh dear, not another frustrating Booker longlister! I actually wanted to read this but it’s not available as an ebook or paperback where I live. So far the Bookers this year have been completely frustrating. I’ve abandoned 3 of them and the books I do want to read are not available yet.

    1. Jackie says:

      mrs B, I haven’t had much luck with the Bookers so far this year either. I’ve also run out of Bookers to read. I’m part way through Sense of an Ending, but after that I just have to wait for my library to get copies in stock. In past years I’d have bought more, but the disappointing nature of the ones I’ve read mean that I don’t want to do that this year. I’m more than happy to wait to try them. Let’s hope we are rewarded with a few decent reads somewhere on the list.

  8. Oh dear. I had high hopes for this one, but I’m glad to start it knowing it may frustrate me. I’m still waiting on my copy to arrive from the Book Depository, but I’ll keep my excitement on a few I *do* have in my hands already.

    1. Jackie says:

      Carrie, I hope that your copy arrives soon – I want to know what others think of it. I’ll enjoy the discussions ;-)

  9. Interesting thoughts on this one Jackie. I am actually now really intrigued by it because it was so readable for you yet made you so cross. Sounds like an interesting mix. I wouldnt have read this without the Booker so again thats a plus from me (sorry if I sound a bit of a stuck record).

    It’s interesting, and a weakness as it failed for you, that some of the plot sounds so implausable, the writer should have been able to draw you into this and hold you there. Shame.

    1. Jackie says:

      Simon, I hadn’t heard of it before the Booker and was really interested by the premise. This is the perfect book for discussion as everyone will have an opinion on it. I suspect that you won’t be as irritated as I was by the plot, but you might find the writing dodgy. I’ll be interested to see which sside of the fence you fall.

  10. Your review rings a lot of bells with me…and I’ve only read the first couple of chapters. I downloaded a sample onto my Kindle to try before buying it (oh, how I love that function!) and it totally turned me off. I couldn’t connect with Jessie, the premise was interesting but felt stretched and I didn’t like the writing. So I gave up and didn’t buy it. Having read your spoiler I’m doubly glad I didn’t carry on! What were the Booker judges thinking?!

    1. Jackie says:

      Victoria, I don’t think I’d have bought a copy if I’d had access to a sample like that. I should probably check if I can read sample chapters of the Bookers I have left as I presume there will be a few more I can quickly strike off my list. ;-)

  11. Annabel says:

    Jackie – I’ve just posted about this book … see my thoughts here, said she teasingly…

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