There are several ways to read Jane Rogers’ The Testament of Jessie Lamb. One is to consider it as a not-overly-thought-through near-future science fiction novel. It is based on a rather vague premise about a virus which produces an effect similar to CJD, but only in women, and only if they become pregnant: Maternal Death Syndrome. The child may survive but the mother will die. The virus seems to have been released at airports, thus ensuring maximum distribution across the world, and women die in massive numbers. There is no escape. Who caused it, no one seems to know, nor why in particular at this time. And these are questions which are not answered. Most of this happens off the page; the only real indication of its full extent comes in the mention at the beginning of the novel of a mass funeral at York Minster and the huge traffic jams this causes, and later in talk of memorials. There are other hints: a scene in a charity shop when Jessie disposes of some of her possessions is especially telling – the shop is already full of containers of women’s clothes that no one wants to keep or to buy.
However, what Rogers does not do, except in the broadest, vaguest way, is to give any indication of how this affects daily life at the most practical levels. For example, what happens to the economy when a large part of the workforce isn’t there any more, and another significant chunk of the workforce has to suddenly consider childcare? Somehow the world seems to continue much as normal, yet the last pre-2012 fuel crisis showed how close to the edge this country habitually teeters. As one or two commentators have noted, this novel seems to fit into an older model of science fiction –John Wyndham would be an excellent example – which relies less on hyper-accurate, heavily researched detail about what would happen if, and more on creating a certain kind of mood.
For example, close to the beginning of the novel, Jessie and her friend Sal are talking about the impact of MDS for the population, coming to a realisation that the world they are familiar with is probably going to end soon.
We thought about our houses slowly falling to bits, the doors blowing open, the roofs caving in, birds and animals nesting there. ‘Some other species will dominate,’ said Sal, and we began to argue about what it might be. All the animals in zoos etc would have to be let out before the last people died. Which would probably kill off a few more of us even sooner. And those animals that could adapt to life in their new territory might take over. There might be wolves again in England, and bears. Tigers might live off untended herds of cows. Tree branches would spread out over roads, and hedges would grow huge and wild, and weeds burst through the tarmac. After a hundred years the world would be one great nature reserve, with all the threatened species breeding again, and great shoals of cod in the sea, eagles nesting in old church spires. It made me think of the garden of Eden, how it was supposed to be beautiful before Adam and Even messed things up. (9)
Wyndham, to the best of my recollection, never actively considered the zoos but this excerpt reminds me sharply of the latter parts of The Day of the Triffids, when Masen returns to London for provisions, which in turn seems to draw heavily on Richard Jeffries’ After London. This similarity to Triffids and its ilk is not coincidental, I think. Wyndham and Rogers are less concerned with the ‘how did this happen?’ and far more preoccupied with ‘how do we manage now it has happened?’ And by ‘manage’ I mean on an emotional level rather than the nuts and bolts of day-to-day survival.
Rogers’ refusal to engage with ‘how did this happen’ is helped by her choice of protagonist, Jessie Lamb, sixteen years old, and as self-absorbed as any sixteen-year-old trying to figure out how the world works. To begin with, MDS doesn’t really figure in Jessie’s life except as a traffic jam. Only later does it begin to acquire a name and a face: a girl at school, a friend’s aunt, and then personal significance when Jessie, along with all the other girls, receives a compulsory contraceptive implant at school. Events elsewhere are filtered through Jessie’s consciousness, what she sees on tv, hears from other people; the picture is fragmentary because it doesn’t impinge on Jessie herself.
But as the crisis continues, Jessie becomes more and more aware of how MDS will change her life. On the one hand, what is the point of continuing with things like GCSE exams? On the other, she and her friends experience a growing sense of impatience. Why isn’t anyone doing anything? They blame the adults and decide they must take action themselves, but in what way? At the behest of her friend Baz, Jessie attends a meeting where young people are trying to decide what it is they want to do, and incidentally, who to blame. There are any number of scapegoats available, from climate change deniers to research scientists, and any number of strategies. One girl wants to set up centres for motherless children, run by the children themselves, without interference from adults. Others want to promote a greener lifestyle, by force if necessary. Still others want to take the campaign to the scientists, Animal Liberation Front-style. For her own part, Jessie is convinced of the need to punish ‘old people’ for what they’ve done, but her perception of who is to blame is no clearer than that.
Jessie’s journey through this confused post-MDS landscape might be an allegory for the teenage experience generally, of being half-child, half-adult, expected to make decisions then criticised for doing so. It could also be related to the journey that Bill Masen makes across England, moving from community to community, searching for Josella, but also testing and discarding any number of models for living in the world shaped by Triffids.
Jessie’s understanding of what she needs to do comes gradually, influenced by a number of things. First, there is the experience of her mercurial aunt, Mandy, recently dumped by her partner, is desperate for a child of her own, about to undergo fertility treatment until it is cancelled by the MDS crisis. Later, Mandy becomes involved with the Noahs, a new religious group who, as their name implies, are trying to preserve something of the present to take into the future, but they reject her as a potential mother because she is too old. Jessie’s friend, Sal, is raped by a group of her boyfriend’s friends, and Jessie herself is spat at, threatened and robbed by a group of boys. Young women are suddenly expendable in the eyes of young men, and treated accordingly.
At the same time, young women are intensely valuable as a commodity, it having been discovered that so long as they are kept sedated and on life-support, babies can be brought to term. These are the Sleeping Beauties. People are very excited by this possibility of continuing the human race, not least as it buys time to do the research to counter MDS, but already different groups are in contention, for research, against it, pro-Sleeping Beauties, against them. A woman’s body is once again a battleground, and for Jessie this is to become all too personal when she makes the decision to volunteer to become a Sleeping Beauty herself, prompted by her aunt’s experiences in part but also, it seems, by her sense of what is likely to happen to her in the world as it changes. To become a Sleeping Beauty – and this is quite explicit if one actually thinks back to the fairy tale – is to be protected, not by a hedge of thorns but by the laboratory. One might counter that with thoughts of Brave New World but from Jessie’s point of view, the decision is not as bizarre as it might at first appear. More disturbing undoubtedly is the response of Jessie’s parents, who imprison their daughter – another version of the Sleeping Beauty story, if you like – in the hope they can persuade her to change her mind. Most of Jessie’s testament is written while she is imprisoned; most of the rest of it while she is awaiting the implantation of the fertilised egg.
We are meant to understand Jessie’s decision as being one that is taken freely, an adult decision made with the full understanding of what it involves, and it would be wrong to try in any way to undermine Jessie’s own perception of what she is doing. Nonetheless, Rogers does an excellent job of showing the vested interests that mass around her, from the creepy Iain, from the youth movement she was involved with, using her to promote the cause, which is itself in part a front for his own predatory activities. Her parents’ refusal to accept her decision represents a denial of their daughter’s having reached adulthood, no matter how much it is couched with scientific explanations from her father, who works in a research lab. Rosa, another girl about to become a Sleeping Beauty, is obsessed with the notion that in this way she will find love and celebrity at last, although she will not be there to experience it. Lurking behind that is the less well articulated but all the more disturbing assumption that the human race must persist, come what may, and that any means is acceptable in order to ensure its survival. Inevitably, this will be the burden that women bear (and one can already imagine a scenario in which it is discovered that men can safely carry babies to term and themselves survive; what then for women?).
Yet, I remain in two minds about this novel. It is, as I’ve noted, representative of a certain kind of science fiction, and done rather well, though I don’t think it is especially innovative. But there is something slightly odd about it that I cannot quite pin down from just one reading. I’ve been watching Dominic Sandbrook’s tv series about the 1970s, the decade in which I turned from a teenager into an adult, matching my fragmentary perceptions of it against Sandbrook’s admittedly sketchy account. I am reminded on the one hand that Rogers catches that sense of uncertainty very well, evoking the internal and the external anxieties of being a teenager. But at the same time, assuming we take the 1970s to stretch into the early 1980s, far enough to embrace the beginnings of the Greenham Common Peace Camp and a new iteration of the women’s movement, as well as the sudden awareness of AIDS. I can’t help feeling that Rogers is reaching back to this in order to underpin her creation of a near-future society rather than drawing on the contemporary world as one might expect. Perhaps it’s just me but the novel and the series seem to resonate in a way that the novel doesn’t with contemporary experience, no matter how many references to climate change denial and CJD she includes. Which leaves me with an odd sense of dissatisfaction that at present I can’t quite dispel. It may be that a second reading is required as this novel is rather more subtly layered than it might appear to be at first sight.