Red Tentacle Finalist: The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers
Tuesday, January 24, 2012
One of the great pleasures of adulthood is learning to enjoy anticipation. As a kid, waiting sucks. Remember Christmas, and how you would go to sleep under the tree every night because you just couldn't wait for the morning you'd wake up surrounded by presents? (Or was that just me?)
Waiting takes on yottagrams of angst-filled misery when you're a teenager, though. Thought waiting sucked as a kid? At 16, it sucks even more than you could ever have imagined. Often because whatever you're waiting for is clearly the last key to fulfilment/coolness/adulthood/getting laid, but also because everyone else has had it or been doing whatever it is for a billion years while you just sit there, on your loser pizza-faced teenaged butt, waiting. Waiting is the worst thing ever. Waiting is the end of the world.
And then, one day, you wake up old and boring and looking forward to things like, uh, looking forward to things.
This may seem like a strange introduction to Jane Rogers' lovely novel The Testament of Jessie Lamb, but, at its heart, Jessie Lamb is a novel about a teenager, waiting. Waiting for boys and kissing, waiting to be understood, waiting to be trusted to be able to make her own decisions. Waiting for freedom. Waiting for autonomy. Waiting for adulthood. And waiting for the end of the world.
Jessie Lamb is a novel about the apocalypse. Or, more correctly, the apocalypses. The world is caught in the grip of a terrible virus of provenance unknown: possibly natural, possible man-made, this virus is carried by every human on the planet, but only affects pregnant women, killing both the mother and the fetus. That is to say, all mothers and all fetuses. No more babies, ever.
No babies, no human race. Sixteen-year-old Jessie Lamb and her peers are, suddenly, the last crop of teenagers the world will ever know.
Without that biological imperative to reproduce, what is humanity? Without a next generation, what's left for this generation?
Jessie is a young woman with potential in a world where potential doesn't really matter anymore. She and her friends spin around, trying to find some kind of meaning in a universe where they're constantly at the mercy of their hormones, but understand that following their instincts to experiment with sex will kill them; to come to terms with the idea that the adults, whom they've just begun to question anyway, may be responsible for the species-killing virus that's inevitably going to wipe them all out. What's the point of working toward the future, when the future's going to stop mattering in a few decades? The kids experiment with rebellion and religion all in the search for meaning in a world suddenly completely without it.
Although the novel's action occurs over a relatively short space of time, time counts in ever new and more meaningful ways throughout the story. Time follows Jessie around like Death with his scythe, only in Jessie Lamb, Death is also staring at his wrist-watch and tapping his toe. Time is a terrible burden, in the novel's world; humanity's span of time upon the planet is suddenly limited to the span of Jessie's life. Jessie isn't just being forced to come to terms with her own mortality, she's being forced to come to terms with the mortality of the entire species. Time collapses in weird ways for teenagers under normal circumstances; in the world of Jessie Lamb, Jessie's sense of time takes on a grim symbolism; becomes a literal teenage nightmare. It actually sort of is the end of the world if she doesn't get good grades, or get a boyfriend, or get kissed. Her school-year is, literally, one of the last school-years ever. Except, it's the end of the world one way or the other. So when she moans about what it all means? Well, she's not moaning entirely without reason.
Into all this is dropped a solution, of sorts. Scientists discover a cure, of a kind; something that'll allow children to be born healthy and uninfected. This being a dystopian SF apocalypse novel, however, the cure comes at a terrible price.
Jessie Lamb is a notable achievement for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most compelling is Jessie's characterization. Jessie is a complicated figure, a brilliant and wholly familiar mix of selfish desire and selfless urges, of fear and anger and love and generosity. She's not always likable, but she's always comprehensible... and recognizable. No self-loathing but secretly awesome and just waiting for the right boy to come along and reassure her that she's smart and beautiful and deserving and worthwhile heroine is Jessie Lamb, not by a long shot. Jessie is a teenager, pure and simple, a creature treading between childhood and adulthood, trying to make her own way through and increasingly murky, apparently meaningless existence.
And, unlike the usual run of paint-by-numbers YA dystopian novels, there's no clear morality at play in Jessie Lamb. This is not your standard teens vs. adults novel, with rebellious, spirited youth being held down by the squares, yo. The dynamic between the teenaged characters and the adults is portrayed compassionately and thoughtfully; Rogers writes each character with equal sympathy and understanding, so that the reader is left understanding both sides of the novel's central problem, and why the characters, regardless of their ages, make what decisions they do.
And, in the end, it all comes down to waiting. Jessie Lamb is waiting for death - as are we all. Her journey is about deciding how to meet it, and learning how to give meaning to the time that remains to her. In learning that waiting doesn't always suck. [Anne]
From 16 January to 3 February, members of The Kitschies' judging panel will be discussing all of the 2011 finalists. Each review only reflects the view of that judge, and should not be taken as representative of the panel's collective opinion or final selection.
You can find the complete list of Red Tentacle finalists on The Kitschies' site. Please join in the discussion below and on our Facebook page.