A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The State of Me by Nasim Marie Jafry is an interesting look at the debilitating illness, ME (Myalgic encephalomyelitis). The narrator, Helen, is struck down with a mystery virus during her student year out in France. Exhausted and sick she comes back to her home in Scotland, where she undergoes extensive tests, and faces scepticism from her G.P. Thankfully her family are supportive and Helen is eventually diagnosed with the coxsackie virus. However, the virus has kick-started ME, a condition that means Helen’s muscles do not produce energy as they should.
When Helen is finally given a proper diagnosis by her doctor, Myra, she is understandably relieved, but she is also triumphant that at last she has been proven right. She is genuinely ill, and she is not an attention-seeking fantasist:
If that locum hadn’t come out to see me, you’d never have done viral studies and you wouldn’t believe me. He could see I was really ill, he believed me, why couldn’t you?!
I’m sorry, Helen, she replies. We doctors aren’t gods. I was making what I thought was an accurate clinical judgement. Sometimes we get it wrong. At least we’re on the right track now, aren’t we?
(Yes, Myra we’re on the right track now, no fucking thanks to you.)
Reading this novel is quite an experience. I imagine that a criticism could be made that there is a lot about a little, and yes, the novel felt overly long. However, the ‘little’ – the smallest elements of Helen’s life – are there in detail because for five long years, the little events are all that Helen has. In the absence of big events, the tiniest events become meaningful. A dead bee in a fruit bowl, a trip to Next, white faeces after a barium meal: all of these are commented upon. At least, that is the case during the first part of the novel. Later on, Helen improves slightly, the pace increases and the book becomes difficult to put down.
Helen’s existence is one of frustration, and she frequently faces criticism and disbelief from those who refuse to acknowledge that her condition is ‘real’. Helen’s fatigue is certainly not psychological. Her body does not function as it should. Her muscles do not provide her with enough energy to carry out even the simplest physical tasks. Those who have thought of ME as ‘all in the mind’ or as ‘yuppie flu’ will be shamefaced when reading this. As a guide to ME this book is exceptional.
Helen is not an unlikeable narrator, but as her mother says, when people have been ill for a long time they tend to get a bit self-absorbed. Helen isn’t an uncomplaining, saintly patient (thank heavens), she bitches, moans and manipulates, but her wry and oddball sense of humour made me laugh throughout. Clearly it is hard not to sympathise with someone whose hopes of recovery are continually raised and dashed. It’s also difficult to feel critical of Helen because her life, once happy and bright, has lost its colour. Helen’s boyfriend, Ivan, sees less and less of her, but because Helen feels that she can’t compete with Life, she keeps her eyes shut to his betrayals, until the inevitable occurs. Helen and Ivan both change over the years, but no matter how far apart they are physically, they always seem bound to each other emotionally, and I found that relationship fascinating and very real.
The setting of Eighties Scotland was brilliantly drawn and I liked the depiction of the family relationships. The style of the novel won’t be for everyone, with interior monologue, letters and conversations with imaginary strangers, but I enjoyed the different devices used to tell this difficult story, and appreciated Helen’s funny and insightful observations. They say the ending can make or break a book, and the ending of The State of Me is beautifully crafted and uplifting.
As for criticisms: the plot sometimes seems thin on the ground, and as other reviewers have mentioned, The State of Me does have the feel of a fictionalised memoir rather than a novel, but I know nothing about the author, so that impression could be entirely wrong. I was not particularly hooked by the novel until I was about two hundred pages in, and I thought the book was a little let down by typos in the text.
Nevertheless, I do think The State of Me tells an important story that deserves to be heard. If you’ve ever wondered about ME I’d highly recommend this book.
The Friday Project (an imprint of HarperCollins). ISBN-13: 978-1906321055. 497 pages. £7.99.