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Review of The State of ME, by Nasim Marie Jafry

Posted Mar 31 2011 12:00am
I loved Jafry's The State of ME.  The author did an amazing job of turning the horrible experience of living with chronic, disabling ME into a story that is funny, entertaining, and tender.

ME is the U.K. term for what the U.S. calls CFS or CFIDS, and which the patient populations has recently begun calling ME-CFS.

The story takes place in Scotland, where our protagonist, Helen Feet is studying French at the University.  She comes down with ME soon after she departs for a year abroad in France.  Worsening symptoms force her to return home before Christmas break.  What follows are multiple ordeals:  getting a diagnosis; exploring experimental treatments; coping with a failing body and brain; navigating the complexities of relationships with lovers, family, friends, and well-meaning strangers; and dealing with the psychological trauma of becoming dependent upon others.  None of this is spectacular.  Those of us with the illness have all been through it to some degree.  But it is not something healthy people understand, nor do those with recognized, less disabling, chronic illness.

And good stories have been written about debilitating chronic illness.  Right away I think of the opera, La Boheme (tuberculosis), the film Hilary and Jackie (multiple sclerosis), the popular novella Love Story (leukemia).  Over three centuries of fiction writing, illness has been a common theme, most often fatal illness of its dramatic potential. After al, what could be more suspenseful than worrying that the hero or heroine will die?  Of course, if the hero or heroine dies, the novel comes to a screeching halt.  And so illness is almost always presented through the point of view of a lover or family member routing for the survival of the afflicted.

Few people die from ME-CFS.  Rather, most of them experience a moribund state in living, a state so devoid of mental enjoyment and physical activity that they often wish for the relief of death.
Doctor:  The good news is, your disease isn't fatal.
               The bad news is, you'll wish it were.
Jafry brilliantly takes us through the experience from the point of view of the patient.  With wit, sensitivity, pathos and hope, she leads us through Helen's transformation,  and so transforms our (the reader's) understanding as we empathize with Helen.

In fiction (at least in good fiction), we witness the way events cause people to change.  In the State of ME, most of the change takes place in Helen and her boyfriend, Ivan, as the other family members play a minor role in the situation..  We follow the trajectory of Helen's dashed hopes, we watch her reconstruct new hopes, and eventually share her joy at realizing two of her greatest dreams.  It is a journey from victim to survivor to thriver.

The success of the novel is due to Nasim Jafry's wonderful voice, which is wry, consistent, clever, and observant.  A few carefully chosen details convey a great deal.

Internal monologues are rendered with a variety of techniques, including one I found extremely effective for conveying the internal dialogue people with this illness imagine to justify their behavior to a confused, judgmental world.
    stranger  What do you do?
    me  I work one afternoon a week.  I've been ill (for fifteen years).
    stranger  You don't look ill.
    me  That's good, isn't it?
    stranger  You seem to have a lot of energy
    me  That's 'cos we're sitting down just talking.
    stranger  Why can't you do a job where you can sit down?
    me  Because it's not just my legs.  If I overdo it, my arms feel mashed up and my head shuts down. I can't think straight.
    stranger  I see.
     me   You don't believe me, do you?
    stranger No, not really
    me  I've got more fucking 'O' grades and Highers than you've had hot dinners, so please just leave me alone (into myself).
You can see from this excerpt how much content and emotion Jafry conveys in a few short lines near the beginning of the book (it's on p. 6)

If your fiction diet consists of mystery, thrillers, and romance, you'll probably find this book too slow.  If, on the other hand, you love classics like Jane Austin, Henry James, Marcel Proust, and modern writers like Andre Aciman, Joyce Carol Oates, or Anita Brookner, you'll enjoy The State of ME.


At first, I was a bit thrown by the slang --- "I went upstairs to finish hoovering, and Piedro made omelettes for everyone else.  He wasn't as glaikit as he looked"  but found that as I read, the context made it pretty obvious, and it wasn't crucial for me to know the exact meaning of hoovering and glaikit.

Clearly the story has a strong autobiographical foundation, as much fiction does (think of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar)  but that doesn't diminish the author's accomplishment in pulling together a finely-written story with all the elements of a good novel.

It's a shame the book isn't more widely read.  Tell your friends and family about it.  New are used copies are available online at  and abebooks.com

The front cover doesn't do justice to the book.  The back cover is fabulous!



Comments:   I got quite a bit of heat from my review of Anderson's novel in the comment section.   I wonder if anyone will comment now that I have nothing negative to say?  Post your comments on the book, the review, or whatever you want.  
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