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This is a new series of book reviews on Litro. It’s exactly what it says on the tin: book reviews by book clubs in London or elsewhere in the world. The idea is to have the opinion of more than one person to help you make a decision on whether to read a book (the opinion hopefully more discerning after being subjected to discussion), and also to go beyond Amazon reader reviews. So, have a book club and want to get involved? Contact me.
Headed by Leila Abu El Hawa, the Post-Apocalyptic Book Club (they also have a Meet-Up group) gets together every month in central London, reading dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels. They've burnt through an impressive 45 books since they started in 2009, including classics like Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, and more recent novels like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Hunger Games (they've only read the first in the trilogy so far, so look out for the next two!)
What's great about them though is that they also organise events, such as the Dark Societies series in collaboration with Waterstones: a panel discussion or interactive Q&A with authors of dystopian fiction. The first of this series was with Naomi Wood, author of The Godless Boys.
The Club also holds similarly themed writing competitions, and has just published an anthology of writing by their members, which is available for £1.54 (inc. VAT) at Amazon UK; any money made from sales will go towards the running of the group.
I've been to one of these post-apocalyptic meet-ups and like how, after the discussion, we all take our turns to rate the book and give reasons for why we rated it as such; then at the end, Leila records the average rating. This is probably one of the best-organised clubs I've been to, and I think Leila probably has a little Club diary by which she can tell you, in the Club's four-year history, which book attracted the most numbers of people, which rated the most highly, or which caused the most arguments.
Last week, the Club met up to discuss The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers. This is their review for Litro.
Introduction by Leila Abu El Hawa
The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers is a tale told from the point of view of an ordinary 16-year-old girl, set in the world of today where a scarily plausible CJD/AIDS-like disease, the “Maternal Death Syndrome”, horrifically wipes out pregnant women and could possibly result in the end of all human life.
Jessie has always led a normal life, but as her parents’ marriage starts to fall apart and the horrific disease weaves its deadly trail around her, she decides something must be done. She wants to volunteer for the sinister Sleeping Beauties programme, by which girls are put into a coma so they can bring to term frozen embryos which then receive a new vaccine against MDS. Her parents, of course, object (even though her father is a research scientist trying to find a cure for MDS), and take drastic measures to stop her. Are her actions heroic or are they simply a result of an impressionable and innocent young girl determined to have a cause?
This novel was longlisted for the 2011 Man Booker prize and won the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke award for science fiction—impressive considering it is Rogers’ first venture into speculative fiction.
This book polarised the group and gave us a lot to talk about. You’d think that the science of the disease and its global consequences would dominate conversation, but it was Jessie’s voice and character and her relationship with her friends and family that created the buzz for discussion, which follows the book’s more inward, intimate focus on Jessie’s personal life.
Twenty-eight people attended the meeting and the book scored an average of 6.34 out of 10.
Reviews by Club Members
Andrew Baguley, 56, actor.
Role within group: The New Guy
Rates book: 6/10
Favourite dystopian book: The Stand by Stephen King
Testament is a lovely Sci-Fi idea. Ok, it’s been done by Children of Men and other books but this story of death by pregnancy via AIDS-like CJD is a new and clever twist. That’s the good part. The bad part: the book wallows in slow plot development and takes forever to get to its point. It’s easily a hundred pages too long. The main voice is Jessie, whose character arc is promising, but once she’s made her mind up it plateaus. After some middling teenage fiction dramas, I really wanted to know more about how the world is coping with the existential threat to the human species, but apart from a few men being nasty, life seems to go on much as normal with people planning holidays and buses running on time. The only time my emotions were affected was when I read about the hopeless life of the dysfunctional aunt. This book could have been a hugely moving testament to human struggle and impossible choices, but instead it reads like teen fiction and struggles to find a home in the science fiction genre.
Jill Griffiths, 41, business systems analyst.
Role within group: The Devil’s Advocate
Rates book: 8/10
Favourite dystopian book: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro for atmosphere; A Scanner Darkly by Phillip K. Dick for humour
Initially, I struggled with this book. I felt that the complete breakdown of society around an event that directly affected only a relatively small number of the population was unrealistic. On reflection, having seen the reaction to CJD which touches only a tiny proportion of the population, I now accept the state and public response as plausible. As MDS advances, state resources are poured into research centres and the controls around ethical testing are under extreme strain as a cure is sought. The value of individual life, human and non-human, is questioned, and this sets up fault lines between special interest and protest groups that have suddenly gained huge teenage followings.
At the heart of the story is an idealistic teenage girl on the brink of adulthood making some drastic decisions, which her father opposes. The strong relationship between a father and daughter, where reason is used as the main channel of communication and as a way of showing mutual affection and respect, becomes a trap for both of them. Her father’s reaction is entirely believable, although almost certainly criminal even in times of crisis. This was the key point of tension in the book club discussion—some felt that Jessie was mature enough to make these decisions without adult intervention, others felt that she needed to be protected from herself. Interestingly, the difference in opinion didn’t fall cleanly along age or gender lines. Almost all of us could identify with being an idealistic teen; few (if any) of us have had the experience of parenting one.
Abraham Orchard, 33, in marketing.
Role within group: Trouble with a capital “T”
Rates book: 4/10
Favourite dystopian book: On the Beach by Nevil Shute
Not liking a book is sometimes different from thinking it’s a bad book, though this can be an easy trap to fall into.
I’m not sure the author intended to add to the current crop of books bulging with adolescent female first-person narratives; I prefer to think that the clichéd setting is simply a backdrop for humanity’s war for survival. Think of Jessie’s story as a parable of today’s children finally freed completely from parental control by the doctrine of individual rights, struggling to make major decisions in a very tough world. Indeed, the falling away of any parental support seems to be something that happens to almost all of the adolescent characters in the book.
Younger readers might take something positive and real from the way Jessie and her friends’ react, but overall I found their actions too stereotypical and the adult characters weak, flawed, and like the setting, rather too much like a backdrop. It makes me wonder whether at that age I too saw the people around me as quite so unimportant, corrupt and incompetent. Perhaps I had more faith in the world or a better relationship with my parents.
If nothing else, this book has been thought-provoking.
James Murray, 27; I write things, design things, and think about things.
Role within group: The Optimist
Rates book: 9/10
Favourite dystopian book: Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
Much of how you might feel about this book hinges on a single choice: would you, if you believed it would help to continue the human race, give your living body to science? There are two major complications to this question:
1) The procedure is uncertain—it might fail or it may be rendered pointless by a scientific breakthrough; and
2) The person making this choice is a 16-year-old whose motivations are constantly thrown in doubt: is she really a heroine, or is she just running away from a complicated world where her parents don’t have enough time for her, where her friends are dysfunctional, counter-productive, and deluded?
It’s a fascinating subject for debate—Do you think Jessie is rational? Would you follow her into her chosen fate? Would you support or condemn the people who allow or prohibit her from making her decision?—but a problematic one. It’s easy to try to put yourself in Jessie’s shoes, find they don’t fit, and cast them away along with the rest of the novel, but you’d be missing out. This is not a straightforward apocalypse: it calls on its characters to redefine it, to step up to the challenges of a radically changed world. It drags you into the debate. Really, it’s everything I look for in apocalyptic fiction.
Carina Wardrop, 30, physiotherapist.
Role within group: The Peacekeeper
Rates book: 6/10
Favourite dystopian book: On the Beach by Nevil Shute
While reading the book, I found myself wondering if I would make the choice that Jessie did and I felt at times that the ideas and thoughts she had were not really realistic for a 16-year-old, and for that reason I couldn’t really identify with her. The supporting characters were sometimes more interesting than Jessie, although we only see them through her eyes since the book is written as her journal. Her parents’ relationship is tumultuous and although they both obviously love her, they don’t seem to show much interest in what she’s doing with her life, until it’s too late. Her father’s desperate reaction to her decision, I felt, may have also been tainted by guilt, as it was his very adult discussions with her about the volunteers that may have pushed her in that direction. A lot of the other characters in the book seemed a bit stereotypical—the man-haters, the animal rights activists, the kids who want to run off to the country to escape, the pervert, the friend/boyfriend—but I still enjoyed reading about them through Jessie’s eyes. In some ways I wish the book were written further down the track so we could find out what eventually happened… Did the scientists prevail and find a cure or did the sacrifice of the volunteers actually save the human race in the end? Overall though, I found the book very easy to read and thought-provoking.