The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a book about teen rebellion and the end of the world, and it was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2011. The London Daily Mail called it “a wonderful evocation of teenage confusion, passion, and idealism.” I was not impressed.
Ms. Rogers says in a note in the back of the book that her influences were American Pastoral, a novel by Philip Roth, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, The Chrysalids, a science fiction classic by John Wyndham, and The Diary of Anne Frank. Because of the basic premise, a world that is dying because humans have for some reason lost the ability to reproduce, the novel most reminded me of Children of Men by P.D. James. But Children of Men was a much better book, IMHO.
The Testament of Jessie Lamb really is a depiction of teen confusion and hubris, and I can see the Anne Frank influence. However, maybe because I’m firmly entrenched in the “older generation”, I found it difficult to sympathize with the narrator, sixteen year old Jessie, and her know-it-all teen egotism. Without giving away the plot of the story, I’ll say that Jessie is out to save the world by sacrificing herself, and her parents think she’s making a huge mistake. Her parents are right. Jessie’s a fool, and the book never makes it clear that she is not a heroine, but rather a mixed-up kid who’s living in a very mixed-up world.
I’m just not a fan of teen rebellion, even though I sometimes live with it in my own house. (Oh, yes. It’s here, too.) And even though the adults in The Testament of Jessie Lamb are not much more mature or wise than Jessie is, I’m still on the side of the grown-ups. Poor Jessie could have used a few fully grown authority figures, or maybe a word from God, in her life to help her make decisions based on something besides misguided feelings and delusions of grandeur.
Ms. Rogers also says that Jessie is a sort of mirror image of the character from Greek mythology, Iphigenia, interesting because the name Iphigenia means “she who causes the birth of strong offspring,” and Iphigenia, of course, sacrifices her life for the good of her people. Wikipedia opines,
There are several possible reasons for Iphigenia’s decision. The first is that Iphigenia wants to please her father and protect the family name. Not only does Iphigenia want to please her father, but she also forgives him for making the decision to sacrifice her. The second reason is that Iphigenia sees this as a patriotic cause. Iphigenia realizes that if she dies, then the men can sail to Troy and win and protect their own women. If the men did not get to Troy to defeat the Trojans then all the Greek women would be raped and possibly killed. Thus, Iphigenia sees her death as saving hundreds of women. A third reason for Iphigenia’s choice could be a more selfish reason. Iphigenia wants to be remembered with honor through her self-sacrifice, unlike how Helen of Troy is viewed. While the concept of glory is mostly seen in the men who fight, here it is seen in Iphigenia. A final possible reason is that Iphigenia sees bad in her father and now has nothing to live for.
Almost all of Iphigenia’s possible motivations are brought up as motives for Jessie’s sacrifice, but none of them are really convincing. I came to the conclusion that Jessie was acting out of pure stubbornness, and that motivation didn’t endear her to me either.
So, my final analysis of this award-winning novel is that it’s thought-provoking but somehow lacking in warmth and appeal, with the kind of characters that made me wonder and want to be drawn in, but never really got me to snap at the bait.