Big SF award, big let-down

Jane Rogers’ The Testament of Jessie Lamb, shortlisted for the Booker, won a big SF award. This was a temptation I couldn’t resist so I checked it out of my library, and damn, this book was a let down.

It certainly qualifies as SF, in the great British, non-pulp tradition. It’s also one more book in the current fad of teenagers in dystopia, and like many teen-dystopias, this book, to its detriment, couldn’t decide whether it was YA or adult fiction.

There is nothing wrong being YA fiction. But if I don’t go in knowing that a book is aimed at young adults, I usually end up unsatisfied – it’s like picking up a cup of hot chocolate that you thought was coffee.

The idea behind this book has potential – a world-wide virus that kills all pregnant women is just one more catastrophe to add to our 21st century list of woes that includes global warming, terrorism, exploitation of animals and the environment, etc. 16-year-old Jessie Lamb, on the cusp of adulthood, is tired of feeling helpless about the messed up world of adults, and she want to take action in a way that will actually make a difference. A chance to do something decisive comes her way – a chance to make her own decision, to do something to make this world better, but at the cost of her life. Her parents feel, as any sane parent would, that she’s throwing her life away in a fit of teenage drama, making a decision that she won’t even live to regret later. [I’m being vague on the plot in a probably pointless attempt to avoid spoilers… there’s not much to spoil.]

The story has all of the typical themes of teenage angst and parental tension, placed in a dramatic, mildly dystopic setting. But for the most part the characters are shallow caricatures of various extreme views. The most interesting relationship in the book is between Jessie and her father, but the tensions in that relationship are made to just poof away in an extremely absurd ending, during which a weakened 16-year old Jessie can somehow, holding an apparently fearsome shard of glass, get her father, a healthy, middle aged man who is no push-over, to lock himself up while she escapes to her death.

I wanted to like this book, but the unintentionally implausible plotting and the juvenile characterization turned me off, and I finished the book in disgust. The author says she was inspired in part by Philip Roth’s great novel of father-daughter tension, American Pastoral – go read that much better book instead of this one.

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