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.