If The Stranger’s Child is the hare in the race of the Man Booker Prize 2011, The Testament of Jessie Lamb is certainly the tortoise. Selling just one copy in the UK in the week before the longlist was announced, Jessie Lamb’s sales shot up a staggering 16,300% the week after.
Published by a tiny company in a far-flung corner of Scotland, Jessie Lamb is a triumphant longlister and tells a fascinating story, which is what the Booker is all about. Set not too far in the future, the human race is well on its way to extinction. An airborne virus called Maternal Death Syndrome has been created by an unknown terrorist organisation and spread worldwide, and every single person on earth is infected. Men can live a normal life, but if women get pregnant they deteriorate into an agonising state of vegetation, losing control of their bodies and minds and dying within days. Millions of women have died and mass funerals are held up and down the country every day. Thus, the population cannot be replenished, and the youngest children alive will be the last people on earth.
Jessie Lamb’s father is a scientist who is desperately trying to find a solution to the dying population. It is from him that 16-year-old Jessie learns of the Sleeping Beauties: teenage girls who volunteer to enter comas and incubate frozen embryos created through IVF and vaccinated against MDS. No Sleeping Beauties wake up. Jessie is faced with a life-or-death situation: does she sit tight and wait for a medical breakthrough or does she give her life for a new, perfect, disease-free one and help stop the extinction of humanity?
Jane Rogers’ writing is humorous and entirely absorbing. She skirts around the nitty-gritty of the disease, avoiding graphic descriptions of death by MDS. But the disease is omnipresent, affecting people’s everyday lives almost like a religion. Radical activist groups form; riots and protests overwhelm the country and saturate the news. The ethics behind the Sleeping Beauties and medical research and the morality the reader is faced with echo Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, in which humans are created solely for organ donation.
The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a brilliant, unique book, and well deserving of its place on the longlist. Devoid of sensationalism, it makes us ponder the fragility, and arrogance, of humanity. Faced with extinction, are the martyrs brainwashed, naïve young girls or are they heroes? Jessie Lamb increases its grip throughout and the ambiguous (and rather frustrating) climax is immensely moving. Slow and steady, hopefully the tortoise will win the race.