Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Testament of Jessie Lamb

The Testament of Jessie Lamb
Jane Rogers
Published by Harper Perennial
256 pages
Available on
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview.
3 / 5 cupcakes

I am an English teacher, so if there is one thing in which I am well-versed, it is literary symbolism. Teach it, love it, know it. When done well, it's subtle enough to present a challenge but not so obvious that a third grader can spot it.

In the case of The Testament of Jessie Lamb, the symbolism is IN YOUR FACE. You can't avoid it, even if you prefer your books simple and approachable. It permeates this book like stink from a skunk.

Let's start with the first obvious symbol: Jessie Lamb. The name? Like, duh? Jessie, which could be a feminized version of Jesus, who is the Lamb of God. Add in the rest of the title, and OH MY GOD. Could it be more apparent?

Add to that some nifty water symbolism (Jesus was baptized! In water!) and a virgin birth (FOR REAL, people), and you have yourself a hot mess of symbolism. At one point, I found myself praying (no pun intended) for relief.

But let's say you're not like me (and I really hope you aren't, because one of me is enough punishment for the world). Let's say you read your books straight up, no analysis necessary. What, then, to make of this one?

Well ... the verdict is not good. Not bad, certainly, but not good, either.

The premise is strong: At some point in the not too distant future (Facebook is still around), a virus, supposedly triggered by bio terrorists, infects all human beings, killing women who get pregnant. In other words, the human population will vanish, because women die once they get pregnant. Sixteen-year-old Jessie Lamb at first merely observes the catastrophe, but when a boy she likes gets involved with a protest group, she joins him. And she begins to think about what this virus means.

Jessie's father is a research scientist trying to find a cure. He tells Jessie about the "Sleeping Beauties" - young girls Jessie's age who elect to get pregnant. Upon conception, they are put into a coma, which allows them to bear a child. Once the baby is born, the girl is literally put to sleep more permanently. The disease, called Maternal Death Syndrome (MDS - kind of the same acronym for doctors, isn't it?) causes the pregnant women to lose their minds, eventually killing them.

As Jessie's activism progresses, she comes to discover what her role could be. She believes she realizes what she should do to help with MDS, but when she shares her idea with her parents and would-be boyfriend, they are horrified. She is determined that she make a difference, even if her loved ones beg her not to do so.

There is nothing - and I do mean, NOTHING - uplifting about this book. I'm all for unhappy endings (paging Gone Girl), but Jane Rogers seems nothing less than militantly intent on depressing the hell out of us. One of Jessie's parents might be having an affair. Her best friend is subjected to a horrific act of violence. Her boyfriend apparently rejects her. Her aunt suffers heartbreak and descends into an abyss of despair. Jessie herself is subjected to poor treatment by friends and family.

Even the bleakness of the book could be excused if we accepted Jessie's reasons for doing what she does. She tries to justify it by saying that she wants to do something that she decides and controls, something her father would be proud to see her do:
To do something straightforward, where there would be no tangled argument and no compromise. Something that would make a difference to the world. Something that was within my power to do without having to rely on anyone else. Something that would make Dad proud. I pulled my pillow and duvet off the bed and wrapped myself up on the floor, so I could go on and on staring at the beech, letting that freedom unroll. The freedom to act. The freedom to do something I had decided for myself. 
A somewhat precocious manner of thinking for a sixteen-year-old, non?

Ultimately, I did not buy Jessie's rationale. She even considers another option, one that leaves her some control and the potential to have an impact, but she shrugs it off and goes with her plan. The harder she pursues it, the less sensible she becomes. What's almost worse, I stopped caring about her. In a book like this, with such a heavy premise, you must care about the characters. Too often, I found myself not liking her or her decision.

Like I said, the premise is very good. But when it comes to books about viruses that cause harm to reproduction, I recommend you go with Megan McCafferty's Bumped and Thumped, which at the very least give you characters to like.

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