Monday 16 April 2012

The Testament of Jessie Lamb

(March 2012)

So after harping on about the misogyny in the last book I read, this one opens with a teenage girl being kept prisoner in a spare room, with bicycle locks around her ankles and only a bucket to piss in. Plus ça change.
Except of course this really is a change, despite having several things which do stay the same. This is how you write about the intersection of scientific responsibility and gender relations. Having characters who actually seem to make their own choices is a good start, instead of cardboard cut-outs who only appear to act because that’s what the author wants. They don’t necessarily have to be nice characters, or make choices you agree with, but they should provoke more reaction than a shrug of disbelief.

Trouble is, I’m getting a little too old for bildungsroman (French and German. Quite the polyglot, aren’t I)? I’m not sure I was ever the right age. I was never really much of a rebel; too much of an introvert. Kicking against authority for the sake of it just seemed like so much effort. I read Catcher in the Rye in my mid-twenties and for all that it’s clearly a very good book, I spent most of it wanting to smack the self-obsessed little punk upside the head, then maybe yell at him to get off my lawn. At the time I lived in a fourth-floor flat.

And I like teenagers. I really do. Not like that – get your mind out of the gutter – but I work with them every day and while it can sometimes be a bit of a grind it can also be a joy. I guess it’s because at work I’ve got licence to steer them where I think they ought to be heading, but in a book all you can do is get hacked off with the tunnel vision and misplaced sense of certainty. Eventually you rein it in and remember that, early on at least, these characters are meant to be like that. No point coming of age if you aren’t actually coming from anywhere.

See? A book – a story – should be a journey, not just a sequence of things that happen. If the characters don’t change then there’s been no journey, no matter how clever or spectacular the set-pieces or philosophies might be.

Not that there's anything in the way of explosive set-pieces here. This is very much in the British tradition of cosy catastrophe, and therein lies the rub. I can suspend my disbelief regarding a global species-ending virus, but the protagonist is 16 years old and this is set in the UK. She wouldn't be old enough to drive, let alone take the kind of decision which drives this book; certainly not without her parents' consent. This has the unfortunate effect of rendering the main themes of growing up and making decisions rather moot. Plus,
 calling your narrator ‘lamb’ is telegraphing it bit much.


  1. "therein lies the rub"

    I LOVE using this phrase!!

    Like looking knowingly at 1/2 the crowd which kinda saw this coming and giving them a wink.. then looking at the other 1/2 and busting out some crayons and a big white paper to start drawing stick figures and arrows in big bright colors.

    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

    My favorite book of all time. Can you read it again and give it some thought now that you've gotten older than the 1st time you read it?...

    1. You as in me, or you as in people in general, or you as in, err, you?

      I like to think I'm relatively well read, but there's a huge amount of stuff that I really should have read by now but haven's. Zen and the... being one. I've not had a splurge on Amazon since christmas, so I've probably got one coming up soon. Reckon I'll add that to the pile.

  2. 16 in my neck of the woods usually meant the kid was either working to make payments on her car or doing work-study to make payments on her car while her toddler was in the high school's daycare center. In some places, kids grow up kind of fast, whether or not they are ready for it. Parents can only not consent if they are paying attention.

    All this talk of journey has me smiling while looking forward to the pleasure of frequenting your blog.

    1. Fair point, and if that were the case here I'd be able to suspend my disbelief. Spoilers coming up, if anyone cares...

      The protagonist ends up volunteering for scientific research as a living incubator, a process that is certain to be fatal for her, but (maybe) not for the child. At 16 I still needed to get a note from my parents to go on school trips, I can't see how voluntary euthanasia could be less serious. There's not even an attempt to explain it away, either, which as a reader give me nothing to cling on to. And because it's a cosy catastrophe, and thus very much business as usual except for that pesky end of the world, it makes it even harder to process than it would be in a good old fashioned apocalypse. It's a little distracting to have a voice in your head repeating 'but what about...?' for half the story.

      Glad you're enjoying the trip.

  3. Have you read Never Let Me Go? I think I felt the same way you did about the above story with NLMG. The kids just suddenly know who they are and what their lives are all about and just go on living. Maybe there were deeper things I couldn't really get into because I couldn't get past their acceptance. They were around 11 years old if I remember correctly...

    1. I keep meaning to have a go at my wife's copy, but I had to do Remains of the Day at school, way back when. It didn't turn me off Ishiguro exactly, but I'm not chomping at the bit to get back to him, either.

      That's exactly it about not getting past a single thing and so maybe missing a ton of stuff. Like the kid from The Wonder Years in Austin Powers; it doesn't matter how serious or important the things he's saying are, all you're thinking is 'MOLEY MOLEY MOLEY MOLEY! MOOOOOOOLEY!!'

      I probably should have written that in my coursework, come to think of it...

  4. I've been struggling to get through this book...and I think you nailed exactly why. I find myself not quite believing the premise, and then not liking the protagonist all that much, and then add in the despair and negativity and I want to throw the book against a wall (I also wanted to slap the kid in Catcher in the Rye - so there you go). I have reached the half way point of Jesse Lamb's testament...and I think I am just done with it.

    1. Hi Wendy, thanks for stopping by.

      "...not liking the protagonist all that much..."

      I was going to say that Jessie strikes me as a fairly accurate teenager, but I'm not even sure that's true. I know we all thought we could change the world, but I can't ever remember being that humourless about it.

      This got long listed for the Booker, and shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke (of which more later). There's a real sense it might win the latter, if only because the others are weak or repetitive. It's written well enough, but I simply couldn't buy that central premise and so the rest just fell apart. Not award-winning material, imho.