Today I am pleased to review a dystopian novel that seems to be flying under the radar in this country, even though it was longlisted for England’s 2011 Man Booker Prize (along with a couple of our favorite AB4T books from last year, Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch and Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman) and won the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award a couple weeks ago for best science fiction novel of the year. Thanks to HarperPerennial for bringing it to the U.S. as a paperback original.
I’ve said it before — I am a big fan of dystopian novels. In The Testament of Jessie Lamb, author Jane Rogers hits some of the same marks as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke, Her novel also has echoes of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Somehow, within a mere 256 pages, the author creates a completely believable world, just different enough from our own to reflect back on it in particularly provocative ways. Jessie Lamb is a teenager like many we see in our libraries or classrooms. She’s 16 and at first she’s rather uninterested in the disaster going on around her. She is much more interested in environmental issues, in despising her parents for refusing to live up to her standards for adequate carbon rationing. But then events begin to affect her friends, and her aunt dies, and her parents’ marriage falters, and Jessie starts looking for a way to make the world a better place.
This is a great read for teens who like to be provoked, or enjoy books about cutting edge controversial issues.
Adult/High School–This thought-provoking dystopian novel is narrated by 16 year-old Jessie Lamb, who lives in Manchester, England with her Mum and Dad in a near-future plagued by Maternal Death Syndrome (MDS). Less than a year earlier, someone (still unknown) released a deadly virus that infects only pregnant women. It attacks the brain; within weeks or even days of being infected, they die. The virus quickly spread around the world, and now there are no more live births. Teenagers and college kids are trying prevent humanity from descending into hopelessness. Jessie helps to form an environmentalist activist group, but leaves when she comes upon a better solution, inspired by her father’s work in a lab at the center of raging reproductive rights protests. Because MDS attacks the mother and not the baby, scientists propose vaccinating frozen embryos stored in medical labs against MDS and then implanting them into surrogate mothers–mothers who would be placed in an induced coma so their babies would survive even after they themselves suffered brain death. That is the background to the present. Now, Jessie is tied up and locked in an empty bedroom in her deceased grandmother’s house, imprisoned by someone trying to keep her from taking the radical action she knows will save the world. The novel is a letter from Jessie meant to give context to her choice, a choice her parents and boyfriend find horrific, a choice she believes to be her purpose in life. Her story is suspenseful, even if its telling is didactic at times. Jessie’s youthful passion and courage make it work.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City