Jane Rogers novel, The Testament of Jessie Lamb, opens with a young woman introducing herself and her story. She is being held against her will, though at this stage it is by no means clear by whom. It is also clear that the world has been drastically changed by a disease, Maternal Death Syndrome (MDS) which has rendered the bearing of children fatal to women. We are never told in the novel how this happened. There is speculation as to what caused MDS, but the causes are largely irrelevant for the novel. The novel is sustained by how people react to it and, especially Jessie Lamb and her parents.
The inability of women to have children is based on them suffering from a prion diesase; their brain is destroyed although it is possible that a healthy baby could be delivered. The set up of a world without children is similar to the (inferior) Children of Men although that novel treats the subject differently and in this world children can be born, it means death for the mother, though.
Jessie is young. Events have matured her, but she is not even seventeen at the start of the novel. Her reaction to MDS changes as she sees how it affects people and the wider impact it will have on the world. Initially, MDS only means something to her in that it may inconvenience her as they are caught up in a traffic jam because of a mass funeral service for women who have died due to MDS. She and her friends are judging of a classmate who is removed from school and that they suspect has fallen pregnant.
Until this point, MDS has been largely abstract and it is only when the consequences of it begin to affect those close to her that she begins to realise that the world is changing and that their lives will be different from their parents.
Some of the fear for what the future holds for Jessie and her peers is directed at the older generation in the form of anger at their profligate use of the worlds resources. Many children have already been orphaned by the death of their mothers and some look to set up homes free from adult interference or supervision (depending upod your view). They believe that MDS is punishment for the older generations failure to look after the planet.
There are drives by members of the groups to reduce their own resource use and, amongst those who live with their families still, an attempt to reduce their families resource use.
If attempts to solve the problem are unsuccessful, there is a sense that such efforts are for naught. The young – angry that they are being made to pay for their parents mistakes – mostly don’t share this view. They believe that the healing should begin today. This contrasts interestingly with the well they’ll find a solution, they always do, view of her mother.
There is research into the problem of MDS. Indeed, Jessies’ father is involved in this. A number of solutions are being pursued. One, which came from necessity when the nature and scale of the problem became apparent was to put the women into a coma and put them on life support to allow them to carry their child to term. This, once the researchers realise that they have a way of vaccinating embryos against MDS (they have many stored from couples undergoing IVF) is used deliberately to birth a new generation of babies born free of MDS. Young women (the Doctors are insistent that they be young, as the success rates are higher) volunteer to be implanted with an embryo and are put into a coma. A death sentence.
This part of the novel raised some of the most interesting questions in it. Firstly, there is the question of the role of science. Tackling an issue, such as this, does raise the spectre of something that could be anti-science in tone. The delicacy with which Rogers treats this aspect of the novel does mean that, though some incidental characters do have an element of that in their make up, I didn’t find that foregrounded or the most important aspect of the novel.
What interested me most was the feminist aspects of the novel. One of Jessie’s friends is raped by friends of her boyfriend. The act is never dwelt upon, but there is an immediate reaction in that she refuses to go to the police, as she feels that little will happen.
Her experience leads her to a feminist group who begin to take an interest in the work of Jessie’s father’s clinic. They see the work carried out as an attempt by men to control the reproductive process and control women’s bodies; indeed, some solutions, including using pig wombs, would eliiminate the need for women at all.
These groups begin to picket and attack clinics who carry out such research. Jessie’s father rejects this view and, for a while, seeing this path as a necessary one, buys into the idea of the girls being ‘Sleeping Beauties’, clearly taking a pragmatic view of their decision to end their lives as they are entering adulthood. He, while it does not affect him personally, successfully abstracts their lives.
The reader learns, as things progress, that it is her father that is holding het captive. This is due to a decision taken by Jessie of which he does not approve. Once we learn of the Sleeping Beauties and that Jessie is being held captive by her parents, it isn’t hard to work out what she has decided to do. Jessie has a strong relationship with her parents; especially her father. Running jokes and games (the perfect crime) are used to give a picture of the emotional and intellectual intimacy that they share.
This aspect of Jessie’s life is given a rather unfortunate twist when we learn that, due to legal challenges by those people whose embryos they are. The clinics are only able to use those fertilised by the researchers. In practice, this means that the child Jessie will have will be her half brother or sister.
Jessie’s father, after realising what the programme he has worked on means for young women and their families, leaves his job and tries to dissuade Jessie from pursuing her suicidal course. He begins to fear that people are not fully aware of the consequences of pursuing this path.
Indeed, Jessie believes that a girl that she knows who has also volunteered is merely attention seeking. Of course, though she proclaims that her reasons ate sound. She is the narrator: her voice may not be entirely reliable. Having said that, throughout the novel, she had striven to make a difference. She has come to believe this is the only way she truly can. I trust this. She may well be wrong, but she seems to believe this.
A wonderful novel, one that muses upon science, mortality, relationships and possibly gives a little more resonance to the French idiom, la petite mort. Give it some of your time.