THE TESTAMENT OF JESSIE LAMB
SANDSTONE PRESS, £7.99 272PP ISBN 978-1905207589
Jane Rogers has an impressive backlist. Best known for her novel Mr. Wroe’s Virgins, she has been shortlisted and longlisted, won prizes (Somerset Maugham and Writers Guild), and is a Professor of Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam. Why, then, with such a pedigree, is Rogers’ new novel, The Testament of Jessie Lamb, coming out through Highland-based Sandstone and not by a larger London publisher?
It is a question that has to be asked, though, however unfair it may seem. Is the novel too experimental for the big publishers to handle? Is Rogers’ sales record affecting her prospects with a mainstream publisher? And, finally, does any of that really matter? Writers want to get their books out there – how important is it who facilitates that? Rogers thanks the Hawthornden Retreat and the Arts Council England for their support while she was writing this book, as well as the Banff Centre in Canada for a Fellowship Award. Why, I ask again, is it a small press that has picked up The Testament of Jessie Lamb?
Rogers’s tale centres on teenage Jessie, who, as the book begins, is being held captive by her parents for an as-yet unknown reason. Eventually we learn her captivity has its roots in a devastating act of biological terrorism: an unknown group has created a virus (MDS, or Maternal Death Syndrome) that attacks women expecting children. Once women become pregnant, the virus, like CJD, attacks their brain, death occurring shortly afterwards. Naturally, women grow terrified of becoming pregnant and the human race faces extinction.
Scientists, such as Jessie’s father, are working on a cure. Meanwhile, Christian groups blame man’s godless ways for the epidemic. Jessie and her friends, the younger generation who will never become mothers, are angry and blame their parents for the mess the world is in.
A solution offers itself: Sleeping Beauties. These are young women who volunteer to get pregnant and be induced into a coma, so that their child can grow in the womb without being infected by the virus. The only problem is that the Sleeping Beauties will, of course, die. A surprisingly high number of young women volunteer, and gradually Jessie too comes to believe that she should join up. When her parents discover her plans, they imprison her. Which is where the novel begins.
Rogers is good on interface between the seemingly opposed camps of science and religion. For example, ‘sacrifice’ is a religious term, but it’s also used here when discussing acts performed for the good of science. And the novel’s basic premise is strong and comparable with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Trying to sell a feminist dystopia to publishers these days might not be easy, but Rogers’ subject matter – particularly the anger of the young once they realise their future has been stolen – is timely.
There are real problems with this novel, however. Part of it is structural. Trapped in her room, Jessie tells her story in flashback. We know whatever she does, it will lead her to captivity. Dialogue is over-used to explain what’s going on. Both Jessie’s parents feel insubstantial, and key events, such as her friend’s rape and her aunt’s death, happen off-stage, only to be reported to us. Jessie herself moves too quickly into the mindset of a sacrificial lamb, and doesn’t even change her opinion when she begins a passionate relationship with Baz.
The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a novel that misses too many of its targets, which is a pity as it had potential. Why Rogers, with all her experience and talent, should so get it wrong, is a mystery. But perhaps the publishing question has at least been answered.