I want you to know my story - our story, your beginning. So you understand everything I’ve thought and felt, and so no one can tell you I was a silly brainwashed girl, or a puppet of Iain’s. I don’t want anyone trying to claim you for a movement or an idea. You’re free, and whatever you want to do with your life, the thought of it makes me glad. Above all I want you to know that I’m glad. I’m glad this is happening.

In the not-so-distant future, an unimaginable act of biological terrorism (or scientific experimentation gone terribly wrong) changes the fate of the human race, forever. Maternal Death Syndrome (MDS) attacks and kills pregnant women in a matter of days, and thanks to its airborne nature, every single person on earth has contracted the disease. Sixteen-year-old Jessie Lamb has grown up in this world, always knowing that no other humans will be born and that the extinction of the human race is not just inevitable, but relatively close at hand. In this tersely bleak future, Jessie and her classmates vacillate between protest movements, looking for an outlet to express their rage and passion. These teens rally against animal testing of MDS cures; they argue for youth political power over the adults that have screwed everything up; they scream for environmental conservation and clean energy; they rage against the gender injustice of women being forced to bear the horrible cost of MDS.

In this miasma of anger and impotence, though, hope takes root. Key scientific breakthroughs are made, and a baby is born to a mother who volunteered to have herself placed in a chemically induced coma immediately after pregnancy. Thanks to new drugs, this woman’s child was able to gestate before the mother succumbed to death by MDS. Soon after this hopeful news, other “Sleeping Beauties” sign up to bring forth new children at the cost of their own lives - young teenage females leading the charge. When Jessie learns of these new medical breakthroughs, she makes the biggest, defining, final decision of her life.

Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, Jane Rogers' The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a rich, heavy read, full of provocative questions and so many shades of gray. Beautifully and convincingly written in epistolary form, Jessie’s testament for posterity is truly moving, haunting stuff.[1] For all that it is set in an apocalyptic future, Jessie Lamb reads more along the lines of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go than, say, Justin Cronin’s The Passage. More than anything else, this is a quiet, elegiac novel about a girl who grows up and struggles to make sense of the broken world around her.

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Not only does this book challenge the old thematic standbys of sexuality and faith, but more importantly (in my mind), it questions agency and choice. Particularly a young woman’s agency and choice, as Jessie Lamb skillfully inverts the more familiar abortion debate about a woman’s right to choose. In this MDS-ravaged world, Jessie’s decision (and how she gets to that dramatic decision) is the core conflict that drives this story–and the reactions to her decision are fascinating and far-ranging in their implications. Her family fights desperately against her, in a familiar parental reprisal: you’re too young, you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’ll thank me for this later.

There’s no doubt that as a character, Jessie is idealistic to a fault, but after reading this epistolary account of her life and her choice, one cannot argue that she’s been brainwashed or manipulated–Jessie makes her decision with her eyes wide open (if tinted with rose-colored, idealistic lenses of youth). This is the kind of book that poses more questions than it offers answers, and is brilliant fodder for debate and discussion–and whether or not you believe Jessie’s decision is correct, you appreciate her open-hearted candor.

In Book Smugglerish, a heartbreaking, thought-provoking 8 out of 10.

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can find also find them at Twitter.



[1] I say convincingly written and I mean it - Jessie sounds very much like a smart teenage girl penning her thoughts on paper (as opposed to another much-lauded apocalyptic novel this year, Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, with its frustratingly inconsistent voice).