Vulpes Libris

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

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.

8 comments on “The State of Me by Nasim Marie Jafry

  1. Ann Darnton (Table Talk)
    August 16, 2008

    I haven’t come across this before but as someone who has suffered from something similar I need to get hold of this book. What is interesting is that the author has chosen to set it in the Eighties. To be honest, it isn’t that much better out there now.

  2. Lisa
    August 16, 2008

    Ann, I’d be really interested to know what you make of the novel, especially as you have experience of a similar condition.

    It sounds weird to say, but I thought this was a very brave book to write. It’s unflinching, and I admired that.

    I really loved the setting, and listened to loads of Scottish bands popular in the Eighties and early Nineties while I was reading it.

    TSOM seems to suggest that things have improved a little in terms of acceptance of ME, but there are setbacks when conflicting studies hit the press.

    Tbh I had written a much longer review, but had to edit out about half of it. There are some real highlights, such as trips abroad and new relationships, so it’s certainly not all doom and gloom.

    All in all, I’d say a very good first novel.

  3. Jackie
    August 16, 2008

    This sounds like a a realistic account of what it’s like to have a chronic illness, so my hat’s off to the author for being brave enough to “tell it like it is”. It’s unfortunate that probably a lot of the people who most need to read something like this won’t have the patience or courage to, but I do hope it gets a good amount of attention.Thanks for the review of what sounds like a difficult, but important book, Lisa.

  4. petal47
    August 17, 2008

    I’ve never thought of typos as being something that can let down a novel. I work as an editor, but I enjoy fiction as a reader, and typos barely register, especially when the subject matter engages me the way this novel does. Every author’s first novel is a personal triumph, but for Nasim this must be particularly true.

  5. April
    October 14, 2010

    I have M.E. and was reccomended this book by a fellow suffer. It really is like reading my own story. I’m still in part one and I am really enjoying it so far.
    I am also an english literature student and have subconsiously been analysing this novel.
    A symptom of M.E. is a foggy head. These make you feel very disorientated and confused and everything blurs into one. The way the narrative is structured (i.e. with no speech marks) i feel is to reflect this foggy feeling which m.e. sufferers have most of the time and i feel it is done particularly well.
    At first the whole “window” aspect confused me but then i realised it was helens way of dealing with her illness. Although i’ve never looked at myself this way, i have been told it is common and a comfort for others.
    I think for a debut novel it is fantastic

  6. nmj
    December 14, 2010

    Hello, April – I am not sure if you will venture back here, I have just come because of a link showing in my blog stats… Am so glad you are enjoying the book. Just wanted to say that the not using speech marks is my personal style, I never use them, perhaps partly as an energy-saving device and I don’t like the cluttering effect they have on the page (for me, at least). Also, the windows refer to a children’s programme in the sixties and seventies in UK (not sure if you are in UK) called Playschool – there was a theme of looking through different shaped windows. I did used to think I was looking at myself through a window/on a stage when things were grim with my illness and I gave this characterisitic to Helen. Wishing you all the best with your studies and ‘recovery’.

  7. nmj
    December 14, 2010

    Oops, characteristic, I mean! Am most tired just now.

  8. myworldmyblog
    February 12, 2012

    Reblogged this on MyWorldMyBlog and commented:
    I will be blogging my review of this book in the coming months. x

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This entry was posted on August 16, 2008 by in Entries by Lisa, Fiction: general, Fiction: literary.



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