I’m onto my fifth novel from the 2011 long list and now have to ask myself the question “What constitutes a great novel?” Is it an engaging story? Is it lyrical writing? Or a tale that transports you, transforms you? Is it one that shakes you to the core? Or one that enlightens you, even a little? This does appear to be a great year for writing. Most of the books I’ve read covering at least one or two of the above questions.
Jane Rogers’ book opens with sixteen year old Jessie Lamb, chained up with bike locks around her ankles, penning a diary to reflect on how she got herself into this predicament. We then revert back to the events that lead to Jessie being locked in the room, with occasional flash forwards as she pens each day’s thoughts.
We quickly learn that the world is being rocked by the incurable MDS (Maternal Death Syndrome) whereby all pregnant women and their unborn babies die before full term. Obviously if this continues unresolved it would constitute the end of the human race. We have various action groups, feminist, youth, animal rights, religions all as players in this not too distant future apocalypse. Serous questions about our roles as “top-of-the-food-chain” beings are raised and debated. A mirror is being held up to our current society and the picture isn’t pretty.
I thought, there has to be something we can do, before everything fractures and shatters into pieces. I had an image of our windscreen when we were driving on the motorway one time. A stone flew up from the car in front and we heard it ping against the windscreen. It chipped the glass and from that chip a crack slowly spread along the middle of the screen towards the driver’s side. My Dad pulled onto the hard shoulder, to turn off at the next exit. The crack in the glass kept moving, slowly, as if it had a life of its own, snaking across the windscreen, As we reached the turn off it got to the other side and a new crack began, slanting upwards from that point. It was as if someone was doodling lines on the glass. Dad stopped at the slip road roundabout, and when he started again there was a little jerk with the gears, and the whole window suddenly shattered. Dad had to bash it out with the road atlas. And I though, that’s what’s happening to us. MDS was a crack and now it’s breaking the whole world into fragments.
However this doomsday approach is not the core theme, that theme belongs to the young girl’s coming of age, rebellion, wanting to find her identity and place in the world, questioning adult mores, coming to terms with her knowledge that she exists as an individual.
This is a tragic book with a message of the futility of hope in the opening chapters, dark, bleak and disturbing. A lament on what it is like to be a teenager but with a current political theme.
I’m sure there will be critics of the doomsday approach, just as we have climate change sceptics, but the uselessness of “buy no presents Christmas”, composting potato peels etc etc is not the core message here. A book worth reading, if only to remind you of the internal rebellion you had when a teenager.
So is this a “great novel”? To be honest I’m not sure, I am sure that it will probably date and seem “quaint” in 30 years time, but having said that none of the long list I’ve read so far are “great novels”. I’m now not at all envious of the judges having to pick a shortlist, let alone a winner. “The Sisters Brothers” and “Snowdrops” are out for mine, leaving me three more to add to the shortlist from the remaining seven I have to read….anybody got a shoe horn?
Cross posted at my Booker Prize blog