What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Novel That Will Haunt You Long After You Put it Down

It's been a day or two since I finished reading The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers, one of the novels short-listed for this year's Man Booker Prize. Often, when I finish a book and move on to the next one, the one I have completed subsides gently into the background of my mind. But this time, I actually found myself dreaming about Jessie and her world last night -- not a terribly comfortable state of affairs, given the bleak world in which Rogers set her novel and the kind of choices Jessie finds herself making about her life. To me, that says that even if Rogers hasn't quite managed to craft a novel that I think will win the Booker, she's written something chilling and memorable and thus well worth reading. (It's not out in the US as yet, and I don't see a publication date yet, but it's a paperback that you can order from Amazon.co.uk.)

When the novel opens, we meet Jessie, chained by the legs with bicycle chains to stop her running off and doing something -- and we soon discover that it is her father who is restraining her. What could have driven him to such extremes, when it's clear from the narrative that they have an exceptionally strong and close relationship? But the world Jessie and her family live in is a crumbling one; an act of bioterrorism has led to a new disease, MDS, that afflicts any woman who becomes pregnant -- kind of a horrible combination of AIDS and mad cow disease. The only treatment is for the victim to be "put to sleep"; millions of women are dying. Jessie and all her teenage friends are fitted with Norplant-like devices, but that simply stops them from falling victim to the disease -- it doesn't give them a reason to live. And, being teenagers, that's already a problem. Some become animal rights activists, convinced that the toxic virus is simply another manifestation of man trying to monkey with the natural world; others turn into radical feminists, arguing that the virus is simply another instance of men treating women as objects. Jessie, like many other 16-year-olds, is already looking at the mess her parents' and grandparents' generations have made of the world and reacting with disgust, arguing against a family vacation that will consume carbon or when her father proposes a trip to the seaside in the car.

But her father's lab, along with others scattered around the world, has reached a kind of breakthrough. Scientists have found that after years with no children born -- forcing humans to come face to face with their own sudden extinction, a scenario also explored in The Children of Men by PD James -- that it's possible for young women with MDS to give birth to children after all. The catch is twofold: their children will also be afflicted with the virus, activated on pregnancy, and the women won't survive. These "Sleeping Beauties" are put into induced comas until their children are delivered and then "put to sleep" permanently. The first round of these pregnancies were accidental ones -- young women who became pregnant unaware, in the earliest stages of the epidemic. But now science is making it possible for pre-MDS embryos conceived through IVF and frozen to be immunized and implanted into young women. But the outcome for the "mothers" doesn't change -- they will still die -- and this time the women will need to be volunteers -- and teenagers, since that will boost the odds of success...

You can kind of see where this is heading, I'm sure, and that's not a surprise as it's clear relatively early on that Jessie is fascinated by the idea of making a difference in a world that is going to hell in a handbasket. Could she actually help to save the human race? The author does a good job of exploring what is going on inside her mind -- the mind of a teenager -- and showing the conflict between her and her parents, who are normal people accustomed to ordinary failures and who, like most of us, have long since forfeited their idealism. Rogers sometimes displays a heavy hand in describing the post-MDS world in which Jessie and her friends are coming of age, and too many of the characters are simply walk-on parts, part of the backdrop to the core drama that is the conflict between Jessie and her family. Still, it's a chilling page-turner; if you've read and enjoyed novels like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and are intrigued by "what if" scenarios of the dystopian kind, this is the kind of book that you'll find unforgettable. It's not as well conceived or impeccably structured as Ishiguro's or as The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, and if you pause to think about it while you're reading, you'll spot the flaws. But the power of Rogers's tale and Jessie's testimony is that you won't stop -- you'll be swept along by the story. And beware, because it's likely to haunt you for days.


  1. This is the book from the long list that I wanted to read the most,i just haven't got my hands on it yet. I've read two others and am into #3, but your review just confirms it!

  2. Hi Suz- Terrific review! This one is going on the WL. Good job!

  3. Thanks so much for sharing your review. I haven't gotten my hands on any of the Booker contenders this year and this is one of the ones I'm most eager to read (all the more so after reading your review).