Because it'll be proof - won't it? - proof that you really are doing what you want. Proof that I, Jessie Lamb, being of sound mind and good health, take full responsibility for my decision, and intend to pursue it to its rightful end.
I underline my name on the pad. The question is, where to begin?
Jane Rogers' Booker-longlisted and Arthur C Clarke Award-shortlisted The Testament of Jessie Lamb (2011) has attracted distinctly mixed reactions during its brief lifetime. (Here is a representative selection of comments from reviewers and critics I read regularly, most of whom I agree with much of the time: two for, two against, and one not completely convinced either way.) For my part, after some initial scepticism, I found myself utterly won over. Here's why.
The novel tells two parallel stories. In one - the framing story - protagonist Jessie sits alone in the small room where she has been imprisoned by her father. Armed with a pad and pen, she tells us the second story: the tale of how her relationship with her father deteriorated to the point where he decided to hold her captive. You see, with a teenager's keen sense of urgently idealistic melodrama, Jessie is planning to sacrifice herself for the sake - as she sees it - of the human race.
The first few chapters sketch out the dilemma: it's five minutes into the future, and humanity's continued existence lies in the balance on account of a fearsome new illness called Maternal Death Syndrome. It's exactly the sort of improbably over-the-top, instantaneous super-plague that literary writers dabbling in science fiction love: an unholy union of CJD and AIDS that infects every woman, everywhere, and is triggered by pregnancy, effectively turning conception into a death sentence. It makes very little sense at all, but it proves a potent allegorical and emotional lens to bring Rogers' concerns into focus: how, in such a scenario, does a young person like Jessie envision her future? Can individual sacrifices matter - let alone make a difference - in the face of such overwhelming odds?
It occurs to me, having written that last sentence, that in some ways Testament is a climate change novel. Not in the sense of literally being about climate change, although certainly that is an element of its setting; rather, in the way it examines the powerlessness of individuals - even really, really green ones - to combat a global problem effectively through their own actions. Like many teenagers, Jessie is passionate about, as she puts it, "living on the planet in a less greedy destructive way", and is convinced that anyone who isn't confronting the problem Right This Instant is wallowing in a typical adult "cynical, complacent, couldn't-care-less" attitude. She starts meeting with a group of young would-be activists, who all agree that the older generation is the problem, that MDS is really just a long-overdue punishment, and that even now adults are responding with proper urgency:
"The point is, a bad thing was ready to happen. The ground was prepared."
"Not by us," I said. "By our parents. And their parents. They're the ones who've messed things up."
"Right. But now this has happened everyone can blame someone else. Instead of being mad at the government for giving scientists money to make hideous weapons, or at themselves for polluting the entire world, they can put all the blame on some unknown monster. [...] People always think there's enough time left to change."
"Well, they're stupid."
Inspired by her friends, Jessie tries to reduce her impact on the planet, but is doomed to be frustrated when her parents don't quite share her zeal ("Dad went yes yes you can plant veg in the garden, yes we can stop the supermarket run, if you've got time to go to the market. Transferring the effort to me, and then niggling if they thought I hadn't spent long enough on my homework") and outraged when she catches them committing such dreadful sins as booking a holiday abroad.
As a reader, it's hard to escape the knowledge that even if she did manage to convert them to growing all their own food, one family - or even a whole town of families - is never going to be enough to overcome climate change. For Jessie, though, I imagine this objection would be beside the point; I imagine this fairly securely, because I recognise so much of my own adolescent self in the way she writes her world.
For Jessie, individual actions do change the world - they have to, because the political is personal, everything is urgent, and the alternative is that you have no control over your environment whatsoever. Jessie and her peers are obsessed with control, because as teenagers still living at home they're inescapably aware of how little autonomy they have. When a fellow climate change activist blurts out, one day, "'We shouldn't have to live with adults [...] We can look after ourselves. [...] Why should we be kept like - like pets? By them?'" - and, with a healthy dose of dramatic irony, goes on to compare being raised by one's parents to 18 years of "imprisonment" - she's expressing, naively but utterly sincerely, what everyone else is thinking.
Likewise, when Jessie is attacked by a group of boys one evening, her response is to blame herself:
He and Mum must have been as shocked about the gang as I was, because they became ridiculously protective, and offered me lifts all over the place, until it finally sank in to their heads that I had given up car travel. I knew I'd been attacked because I had stupidly walked straight into something; if I kept my eyes and ears open I could avoid trouble.
She has to preserve (an illusion of) control: if she just follows the correct behavioural formula in the future, it can't happen again.
Many young people who feel so acutely their inability to control their own lives develop anorexia as a tragic coping mechanism. Jessie, though, has a different - if no less self-destructive - option open to her, because her father is a research scientist whose laboratory is investigating MDS. A vaccine has been developed, but since absolutely everyone in the world is already infected with the virus that causes MDS (bow down before the super-plague, puny humans!), it can only be given to a gestating foetus. MDS-immune children can be produced, therefore, but only if there are women willing to do the gestating - using frozen embryos stored before the advent of MDS - and die of melted brains in the process; indeed, the only way a woman can be kept alive long enough to bring a pregnancy to term is by being put in a coma. You can see, I suspect, where this is going.
The scenario is simultaneously grim and ludicrous - the biochemist in the room confirms that by the time such a foetus had developed an immune system of its own (necessary for the vaccine to work), it would have been infected with MDS by its mother anyway - but plausibility isn't Rogers' point. Her goal is to give idealistic, desperate Jessie the ultimate chance to take control of her life: by ending it in the cause of something much bigger than herself. As "a stream of girls started to volunteer" to be 'Sleeping Beauties', as they're dubbed, Jessie is, unsurprisingly, inspired. As she explains, looking back:
You could see why they did, even then. They were following Ursula Johnson's example. They did it for their husbands, or their families, or their religions. They did it for the future. What better single thing could a person do with her life?
But naturally people fussed and objected like they always do when someone tries to do something positive.
She just about acknowledges that perhaps not everyone who becomes a Sleeping Beauty does so as an exercise of healthy free choice, but she is resolutely convinced that anyone who expresses concern over the idea is just a cynical, complacent couldn't-care-less enemy of all that is hopeful ("OK there are bad things, like the Chinese who sold their daughters to clinics - OK - but because there are bad things does it mean nothing new should happen? That nothing can be done?" Ah, yes, it's always China...). For Jessie the narrative of sacrifice, the personal act, is the point. When her dad mentions that eventually the Sleeping Beauties won't be necessary, because research on artificial wombs has been accelerated, she doesn't want to know, presumably because it lacks heroism:
"What are artificial wombs?"
"Incubators. Machines babies can grow in."
I thought it sounded disgusting.
(Yes, Jessie. Disgusting. As opposed to actual women living their final months in comas while their brains slowly liquefy.)
This is where Rogers' use of a snippet from Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis as an epigraph for the novel ("Another kind of light and life / Are to be mine...") comes into focus. In most versions of the story, the Greek king Agamemnon's blood sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia, to ensure a fair wind to Troy, is all about him: it is demanded of him by the gods, it is his decision to make, and ten years later Clytemnestra, Iphigenia's mother, places the blame for her bereavement squarely on him when she kills him for it. But in Euripides' play, Iphigenia - although initially a helpless, tricked pawn - ultimately chooses her own fate, and in doing so she specifically frames it as a heroic death. She is presented as a paragon of female virtue and bravery, in implicit contrast to the faithless Helen, whose desertion of Agamemnon's brother Menelaus is the reason(/excuse) why there's a massive army of Greeks standing around waiting to sail to Troy, so they can mooch around on the beach outside the city walls for ten years and bicker about slave girls.
On one level, Iphigenia's self-sacrifice is a pointless act of self-delusion, a story she tells herself to give meaning to her surrender to the inevitable; the only way you get out of a situation like this alive in Greek drama is through a deus ex machina, and on this occasion the gods aren't playing, because they want you dead too (although in another of Euripides' plays Iphigenia is secretly spirited off at the last moment by Artemis, and an animal magically disguised as her is killed in her place; the Greeks did love messing with their myths). On another level, though, it is an act of agency, however warped and tragic: faced with a situation she can't hope to escape, Iphigenia takes control in the only way she can, by choosing death before it can be forced upon her.
So Jessie is Iphigenia, although in her case she believes she is saving life rather than enabling a war. She has already convinced herself that she has no future:
"Our lives won't be worth living if we know there's no future."
"Why? There's no future for anyone beyond 80 years or so. Everyone dies."
"But we always know there'll be more people. We know it'll all carry on."
Looking back from her makeshift cell, Jessie describes how she felt oppressed by her inability to do anything in the face of such bleakness ("I was powerless. I had to find a way out"), and also how the Sleeping Beauty programme offered hope ("Scientists had found a way for us to survive"). We get glimpses of the scheme's reception in the world around Jessie: the first Sleeping Beauty, aged 15, gets a funeral at Westminster Abbey, but the participating labs are picketed daily, especially after secret filmed footage of the young women in comas is smuggled out. When her friend Sal, horrified, shows Jessie the footage, she is characteristically dismissive, refusing to make the connection between the heroic act of sacrifice she imagines and the ugly reality:
The point about it is they don't show the women like people you could care about, they show them like animals, in disgusting states, naked, puking up.
When Jessie goes to the lab and signs up to be a Sleeping Beauty, again her desire to control her life, however much harm she does herself in the process, is at the forefront; she describes her relief at feeling that she is "doing something" at last as "the beautiful sharp knife of my secret". The imagery is, if you'll forgive the pun, pointed: The Testament of Jessie Lamb is not the pro-life tract that some have suggested (well, I have no idea how Rogers intended it, but it doesn't have to be read that way), but a novel about a teenage girl finding the ultimate way to self-harm. And through that self-harm, she feels fully in control for the first time:
Mum and Dad don't understand. They think it's something awful. If I could make them see that actually it's making me happy; that deciding what I'm going to do, and setting that in motion, is giving me power; that for the first time in my life I feel safe and in control - if I could make them understand that, surely they wouldn't be upset?
It probably doesn't help that her father - at least in Jessie's presentation of him - is nauseatingly up-beat about the whole thing, in the days before he realises Jessie plans to join in. When Jessie's mother expresses horror that the Sleeping Beauties are "'expected to give up their lives for alien genes'" (it's not clear to me how that is worse than dying in the same way for your own genes, but I imagine I'm in a minority on this), he replies, "'But the girls who do this will know they're helping the survival of the whole race.'" Thanks, Dad!
Jessie squirrels away these moments, and unearths them, later, when he flatly refuses to let her do the same, and locks her up in an effort to stop her from returning to the lab to begin the process. I found the contrast between the gung-ho dad of the past and the implacably opposed dad of the narrative's present to be rather forced, but we can perhaps put this down to Jessie being selective in her retelling.
And yet, she is convincing. Not in the sense of getting me to agree with her decision - dying for the sake of the human race's future breeding potential, rather than to save actual living human beings now, is much too abstract and woolly a goal for me, especially when even within the novel it is presented as potentially unnecessary - but in the sense that I was convinced by the end that this was her decision. It's self-aggrandizement, it's self-harm, it's something she might have thought better of, had she waited a year or two: but it is absolutely and without doubt her choice, passionately made and claimed as such. And if you believe in a woman's inalienable right to choose what she does with her body - as I do - then that also involves supporting women who make choices you wouldn't.
"But you lose me here, Jess. I can't buy it - this destiny stuff, this thing I need to do. You're a free agent. You can do anything with your life."
"I know. Listen. Let me explain. Because it is freedom. That's what it is."
Like Iphigenia, Jessie chooses to embrace a self-abnegation that achieves, objectively, nothing except grief for her family. Like Iphigenia, she makes me believe that doing so is a measure of her agency.