Monday, 9 July 2012

'You have to allow me to choose what to do'

This novel is a difficult and uneasy read, but this is partly what makes it so gripping. A fascinating, if fictional, moral dilemma lies at the heart of The Testament of Jessie Lamb, raising questions not only of feminism and autonomy, but about what makes life worthwhile. As the MDS virus attacks pregnant women and their babies, it seems that the human race faces extinction unless a cure can be found. Sixteen-year-old Jessie receives the most up-to-date information via her father, a scientist who works with frozen embryos, and observes the fate of the 'Sleeping Beauties', young girls who volunteer to be impregnated with healthy embryos and sedated so they can give birth to MDS-free infants, at the cost of their own lives. As Jessie searches for a worthwhile cause to which to devote her own life, these sacrificial victims exert an ever-greater fascination.

The science behind Jane Rogers' fictional virus is shaky, but like Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, this is not a realistic sci-fi scenario but a novel that focuses on the deeper moral questions which a situation like this allows the author to explore. Most obviously, the 'Sleeping Beauties', idolised by the media and portrayed as a series of Virgin Marys by religious cults, are a feminist nightmare, and it is from their image that the visceral horror of this novel derives. However, this is not a book about the oppression of women - and I found the depiction of female protest group FLAME in the novel ('men hating' and illogical) rather irritating, simplistic and non-feminist, although fortunately they play a small role in the narrative. It seems to me that the two big questions here concern Jessie's agency and her view of what living a 'good life' consists of. As readers, we have to accept that Jessie makes her ultimate choice freely, although we may not approve of it, and this is where Rogers' accurate depiction of teenage thought processes pays dividends. Jessie initially seems shallow - 'I thought stuff on the news and in the papers was for grownups' - but it becomes evident that she has thought deeply about the moral complexity of the issue - 'The future is an abstract concept, Jess.' - 'No, it's my child and my child's child.' The chilling power of this novel lies in the characterisation of Jessie, and the way we cannot write her off as brainwashed or short-sighted.

However, it seems to me that a critique can be advanced of Jessie's actions, although, in this alternate society, this would not necessarily be a reason for restricting her choices. It is evident throughout this novel that while Jessie is as intelligent and self-aware as any adult, she possesses a very teenage conception of what it is to live well, believing that she can discover an ultimate purpose for her life that will remove her from the 'stupid, messy, complicated' world of adults - hence her dabblings in environmentalism and youth activism. The idea of a single, individual act changing the world is occasionally as seductive to the reader as it is to Jessie, but Rogers makes it clear that things can't be that simple by her suggestions of alternative cures for MDS. Jessie refuses to do something 'small', but thinks she has found 'the only perfect solution to all this mess and suffering.' It is the simplicity of her choice that appeals to her - 'To imagine it was a soft green garden in the desert; a place of cool and shade.' Jessie cannot engage with the idea that life, even a life lived well, is full of compromise and confusion. Her friend Lisa is building a refuge for motherless children, an 'Eden' that will be self-sufficient, growing its own fruit and vegetables, but Jessie is not interested in improving the world gradually. She insists that her action is not a 'gesture', but it's hard to see what else it is, given the qualifications Rogers imposes.

The fact that this novel is so thought-provoking and engaging made it work for me, even if the writing is not as polished as it might be (I found the sections from the point-of-view of present-day Jessie entirely unnecessary, and frequently skimmed through them - I felt they added nothing, and broke the pace of the otherwise compelling narrative). It's a bleak read, and perhaps not one I will return to, but I would recommend it if you want to be gripped and challenged.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Off the edge of the map

This impressive debut novel about islands, keys, embroidery, women and the sea takes inspiration from two very different fairytale traditions, personified in its two narrators. Mary has lived her life on an isolated island that bears more than a passing resemblance to St Kilda, despite the talk of the bewitched 'Thrashing House' where those who transgress the rules of this matriarchal community are sent, and ideas about enchanted, poisonous snake ropes left by the 'tall men' who come to trade for handicrafts and fish. Her references are those of Norse or Celtic folklore; harsh and unreasoning, and consistently peculiar. Morgan, confined to a house on the same island after her family fled from the mainland, inhabits a fairer (in both senses of the word) world of the Brothers Grimm or Perrault's tales, where virtue is rewarded and things come in threes, and retains this same expectation herself as she hopes for escape. Her twin sisters, meanwhile, are straight out of Hans Christian Anderson. Among this jumble of storytelling traditions, Jess Richards has fashioned something striking and fresh; she is certainly a writer to watch.

There are faults to this novel. Richards' command of pace at the beginning of Mary's story, as she searches for her kidnapped brother, Barney, and uncovers family secrets, only makes it more obvious when this novel sags somewhat in the middle. It takes a little too long for Mary and Morgan to meet, as they inevitably must, but after they do, the narrative picks up again. I loved Mary's voice, which took me a few pages to read easily, but after that, added to the strength and depth of her character. However, at the weakest points, I felt that Richards was creating a mishmash of ideas just because she could. This can be exhilarating, but also a little shallow, as when Morgan muses, 'I'm not hungry for an oven-baked witch, I'm not laughing at an empress who wears the skin of her fattened emperor as her brand new clothes... I'm so tired, but I don't want to sleep for decades to give anyone a kiss they've wanted for only a moment'. I also wanted the world of the island to be more sufficiently fleshed out, although I appreciate that was probably not Richards' intention. The narrative is continuously and deliberately disorientating, as when Mary listens to voices in metal and Morgan drinks forgetting liquid, and this creates an incredible sense of atmosphere, but I wanted to feel a little more grounded in the rhythms of daily life in this world; the traditions of the Thrashing House and how the women govern this community. This is a book I could admire, but not fully inhabit, and hence, I didn't enjoy it as much as I might have done.

Nevertheless, Richards has set herself a formidable challenge with this novel, and on the whole, she rises to it. I'm looking forward to whatever she writes next.