The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers


Purchased from

When the Booker longlist was announced, I admitted my distaste (that is an understatement — loathing might be more accurate) for dystopian novels and acknowledged the possibility that I would not read this one if it did not make the shortlist. I promised to look for a favorable review — my self-serving excuse was that I wanted to be fair to the author rather than simply ravaging her book; the selfish version is that I wanted no part of hours of reading that I knew I would not enjoy.

There have not been a lot of good reviews of The Testament of Jessie Lamb but I have found one that is written in the kind of form that reflects most of the reviews here. So, please welcome “Mister Hobgoblin (aka MHG), a Booker Prize Forum regular who is working his way through the longlist”. Those are his quote marks not mine and here is his review:

The Testament of Jessie Lamb fully deserves its Booker longlisting. For such a short book, there’s so much in it.

Ostensibly about a dystopian future in which pregnant women die, we find a novel about teenage innocence, the desire to be heroic, questions about the meaning of life and, at the most basic, the relationship between father and daughter.

There are some parallels to other texts – most notably Never Let Me Go – but this take is original enough to stand on its own merit.

Some commentators have thought that Testament is fundamentally feminist. I’m not sure how far that’s true. The basic premise of Maternal Death Syndrome does involve women but the impacts will be universal – without a cure, humankind will die out. Moreover, the question of young people laying down their lives for a greater good has traditionally been, perhaps not quite exclusively, the preserve of men in warfare or terrorism. In creating the MDS, Jane Rogers has cleverly found a way to reverse the gender roles. As a man, I think the principles of martyrdom are universal.

The writing style of Never Let Me Go was more stylized; more perfect. The device of a diary interspersed with an epistle is sometimes a bit clunky and Jessie Lamb’s confused ideals make for a less clean novel. Ishiguro’s clones had been brought up to expect their own sacrifice. Jessie Lamb wasn’t; she saw news reports and chose to take on her role. She had the choice. Yet, for all this, there is still the same issue — what is the point of living when you know that it will all come to an end — which is pretty much where we all stand. On the one hand, we can live for the pleasure of the moment. On the other, we can feel a need to pass things on to future generations. And mostly we lurch wildly between the two positions.

The story is pacy and has moments of real tension. Whilst some of the characters are rather two dimensional, Jessie herself and her father do feel real, solid and develop as events unfold.

If there’s one moment of clunk, it is right at the end when Jessie Lamb says what we have all been thinking – that she has much in common with suicide bombers. Actually saying it cheapens the effect a little. But mostly this is a novel teeming with ideas and leaves the reader thinking.

I do hope The Testament of Jessie Lamb goes further.

To re-insert KfC into this thread, MHG’s references to Never Let Me Go (a novel that I did not like, but many did) strike a responsive chord. And to state the obvious, there seem to be elements of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (another much-loved novel that I didn’t like) in this one. MHG didn’t address it in his review, but may expand in his comments.

Another note for those visitors here who are collectors. If you are lucky enough to get an original version of this book, published by the small Scotland house Sandstone Press, there is a spelling error (Jesse, not Jessie) on the spine. Could be very valuable if this one moves on and you have that first edition.

I should note that the review has produced some very articulate critical responses on the Booker forum — you can find them in the discussion thread here if the review sparks your interest.

Thanks, Mister Hobgoblin for letting me borrow your thoughts.


9 Responses to “The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers”

  1. RickP Says:

    I’m commenting early on this as I’m a little less than halfway through. I don’t have nearly the distaste for Dystopian settings as Kevin does. I liked Never Let Me Go a lot though I found myself screaming inside, “Why don’t they rebel?” That was part of the Never Let Me Go experience.
    Halfway through Jessie Lamb, I honestly find it laughably bad. I’ll wait until I read the whole thing before judging too much but it’s not looking good. It feels like sci fi that I read with my ten year old. I’m just not grasping the themes that MHG mentions.
    MHG, whose opinion I respect from reading the Booker site is getting much more from this than me. Maybe it’s just a case of me not getting this one.
    The Road (which I know Kevin doesn’t care for) is one of my all time favourites yet many friends have commentedthat they don’t get why it was so beloved. I feel like they’ve missed the core of that book. I think I’m missing the core of this because I’m not getting from it what MHG is.


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rick: Thanks for this. I accept that my distaste for the dystopian form is a personal quirk, so I certainly welcome opinions on this novel from those who don’t share it.


  3. David Says:

    As I mentioned over on the Booker forum I was looking forward to this one a lot (I had enjoyed both ‘Mr Wroe’s Virgins’ and ‘The Voyage Home’ by Jane Rogers), and was pleasantly surprised to see it on the longlist. And then I read it. To be honest I only really kept going because I know all the places that Rogers writes about and it was fun recognising them. But very little else about it worked for me – the structure was odd, Jessie’s voice was inconsistent and lacked authenticity, the MDS world seemed too narrow and not properly thought through, the plot didn’t make a whole lot of sense, the various groups of activists were cartoonish, the peripheral characters were one dimensional, the central theme of the child becoming heroic whilst the adults start to look petty only works if you think Jessie was heroic (I didn’t)… I could go on. It’s not all bad – it did make me think, and I’ve appreciated reading MHG’s different perspective on it. But I don’t remember ever reading a worse book on a Booker longlist.


  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: Ouch — I think I am now even more glad that I decided not to read this one. Although I must say that many elements of the list of shortcomings that you sketch could equally be applied to a number of other longlisted books. Previous Booker juries have been accused of “politics” — this one seems to lack some fairly basic reading skills.


  5. MHG Says:

    With thanks to KfC for the dubious honour of having my review syndicated here – it was first written as a much more ephemeral thing.

    Anyway, I haven’t read Margaret Atwood. We all have outr foibles – KfC doesn’t like dystopian novels and I don’t react well to the name “Atwood”, especially when spelled with two Ts. I would be interested to know whether others find common themes.

    In writing my thoughts on Jessie Mack, I was struck most by the ideas. The writing can be a bit clunky at times, although I don’t think it’s anywhere near as bad as others do. On this year’s list I would put Pigeon English as the novel most lacking in technical finesse. I thought that the style – pitting the father-daughter relationship against the wider societal good was intersting, particularly the way it exposed the hypocrisy of the father against the naive faith of Jessie.

    I do think it is a misreading of the novel to see it as a dystopian future. I think it’s a metaphor for today’s society and fairly specifically, young people who sacrifice themselves for values that they have had taught to them by their parents. I think the metaphor works well by taking some of the emotion and prejudice away from the situation and letting us judge it on its own merits.

    Similarly, I took Never Let Me Go as a metaphor for our own lives which are time limited. We make all these plans and have ambitions despite the fact we know it will all come to nothing in a few years. The reasons the clones don’t resist is because they have no more conception of rebelling against their fate than we have.


  6. Shelley Says:

    Thank God that somebody else is tired of these dystopian novels: thanks. People need to take the energy they use in reading them and channel it into battling against the corporate dystopia that we’re sliding into in reality….


  7. RickP Says:

    Okay, I finished it. There have been lots of Booker nominees or winners that I didn’t like (The Gathering, Olivier and Parrot) and even those that I hated (Vernon God Little). There have been those where I couldn’t understand how nomination could have happened (Snowdrops, Child 44).

    In all of the books I mentioned I could see how others enjoyed or appreciated them.

    I have to concur with David in that this is the worst long list entry I can remember reading.

    The writing was shoddy, the themes basic and I didn’t find value in it. Jessie’s voice and point of view were frustrating and irritating to me.

    Again, no disrespect intended to the positive guest review but I guess I just didn’t get it at all.


  8. Sazerac Says:

    I hate to lower the tone of the debate, but I had a look at some of the betting, and where I am (Ireland) this book is second favourite at 5/1 (after the dreaded Hollinghurst – 4/1, and before the must-win Barnes at 6/1).


  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    With pregnant women dying does this mean humanity going slowly extinct due to childnessness?

    If so how does it compare to PD James’ Children of Men, or Aldiss’s Greybeard?

    Interesting point on those latter two. Children of Men follows Greybeard sufficiently closely that there were plagiarism claims initially. Aldiss later withdrew them saying he was satisfied that it was pure coincidence – the books were indeed extremely similar but through chance rather than design.


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