This Booker Long Listed novel by Jane Rogers takes place in the future, but the not too distant future – 1o years or so. Maybe that qualifies as “dystopian”, maybe not. But it certainly paints a bleak picture in that future, which is just around the corner. The planet has been devastated by an airborne virus that has spread to the entire human race. When a woman gets pregnant, she dies within a few days, her brain turned into “swiss cheese”. Obviously this has long-term consequences for the survival of the species. The testament is “written” by sixteen year-old Jessie Lamb, and this is her story.
Now one knows how the disease came to be. Terrorism is mentioned, but this is really not a concern of the novel. It’s the consequences of this terror and all of the havoc it wreaks in society that are the concerns here. The disease has been dubbed MDS (Maternal Death Syndrome). Much of the female population (England) has been fitted with a device to prevent pregnancy by the time the novel commences. Protest groups abound: the Noah’s (self-explanatory), YOFI (Youth For Independence), FLAME (Feminist Link Against Men), ALF (Animal Liberation Front), as people search for answers and want to bring an end to business as usual. Problem is, some of the business is more concerning to some people than to others. We all have our pet causes after all. Here’s the FLAME philosophy:
…the introduction of MDS is the logical outcome of thousands of years of men’s oppression and abuse of women. Women’s sexuality disgusts men and they’re jealous of a mother’s ownership of an unborn child. That’s why they want to marry virgins and keep women subservient, because they can never be certain that a child is their own. And women used to be just men’s possessions, and only men could inherit, and no one wanted daughters. Millions of baby girls have been killed or aborted…it used to be women’s business, helped by wise women, and then men said these midwives were witches and insisted on male doctors. And when some women couldn’t get pregnant, male scientists started working out ways to make babies outside of women’s bodies. Which was what they always wanted to do, so they could own the mystery and power of creating babies.
Jessie’s mother has a well paid, professional position. Her father is a research scientist, a geneticist working in exactly the field that is expected to find a cure or a vaccination for the terrible and civilization threatening disease. The race is on to save the species. One of the stop-gap measures are called the Sleeping Beauty’s – young girls (they have to be young, ideally sixteen) who are impregnated with previously frozen, vaccinated embryos. The girls, of course, will still die from the disease. They are “sleeping”, having been put into an induced coma to bring the embryo to term.
The “testament” sections of the novel are in the written voice of Jessie. As the novel opens, it’s obvious that Jessie is a prisoner, shackled and chained. Who has done this and why is not immediately apparent, but we learn it soon enough. This is a thoughtful novel which raises many interesting moral concerns. A quick read but I was just not blown away by Rogers’ prose. Not a “feminist novel” I don’t think, but I do believe it would appeal to thinking women more than men.