The Testament of Jessie Lamby by Jane RogersReading the Longlist:

Young Adult Dystopia

Tomorrow (For Fun)

The Testament of Jessie Lamb
by Jane Rogers
Review by Eli Lincoln

A number of factors conspire against The Testament of Jessie Lamb. First, the dystopian setting of the novel is only a few months in the future, when the world has changed dramatically due to bio-terrorists having unleashed a virus that infects pregnant women and their fetuses. The survival rate is zero and the virus has spread rapidly, but scientists have discovered a way to keep perpetuating the species: they place young women in a coma, impregnate them with an immunized frozen embryo, and wait. The women always die, but the procedure seems to work if the subject is younger than sixteen-and-a-half—which Jessie Lamb is. Much to the chagrin of her parents, friends, and a menagerie of activists, Jessie, a young idealist (vegetarian, environmentalist), wants to offer herself up to help save the species.

Jessie's motivation to sacrifice herself for the greater good in the face of so much opposition comes off as part teenage rebellion—complete with unclear, poorly articulated motivation—and part authorial contrivance, while the novel’s near-future setting might have been an attempt to render the apocalyptic images and themes extra unsettling, but instead makes the world of the novel—which is, after all, not the real world—feel incomplete and sometimes trivial. Too many of the cultural bits and pieces are familiar and undiluted, and the result feels unmistakably like high-concept, big-issue fiction. It's distracting rather than eerie.

Second, the title character and protagonist is a teenage girl, and while it’s certainly possible to write literary fiction with young protagonists, it isn't easy. A wave of novels in recent years have featured pre-teen characters, and have done so with varying success, but teenage protagonists are an altogether different problem. The younger the characters, the less likely we are to remember how unrealistic the complexity and insight attributed to them might be. With a teenager, though, the issue is unavoidable: Jessie Lamb is a little too complicated and a lot too selfless to be believable.

The moral and ethical questions the book poses to its characters—and through them, to its readers—are complex and interesting, though, and the book trucks along on the steam provided by those questions. There's a lot to think about here, and turning pages is easy—this turns out to be a nice YA novel. And before jumping to the conclusion that YA is used as a pejorative here, I assure you it isn't. Novels for young adults are often interesting and insightful, and this book is both of those, just not in the way one might expect from an award-nominated piece of fiction for adults. This is a book worth reading, but not worth elevating beyond its apparent intention: to be fun and a little bit thoughtful. Ω

Eli Lincoln has written, most recently, about social dynamics between casual and serious sports fans.