Tuesday, 16 September 2008


I finished reading The State of Me by Nasim Marie Jafry earlier this week. I'd read the bulk of the book (save for roughly the last 100 pages) a couple of weeks ago, but I quite deliberately put it to one side because I didn't want to finish it just yet.

On picking it up again, I expected that I'd finish it in two or three sittings, but as it turned out I quite easily got through the rest of it in one go.

If I had any hopes or expectations beforehand, it was that at the very least I would find the book engaging, interesting and informative. I found it to be all those things. But what I didn't expect was that I would find a novel about ME - the illness, myalgic encephalomyelitis - to be not just compelling, but to be such a sheer delight.

But I'll add a correction to that: it's not about ME, it's about a person (the central character, Helen Fleet) with ME. In other words, it's a novel about a life - one which becomes severely disrupted by a whole cluster of debilitating, bewildering, frightening symptoms, which in turn are potentiated by the attitudes and assumptions of others and by a huge raft of uncertainties.

Which from that brief description might make it sound like a joyless trawl through tales of illness and suffering: far from it. ME is - necessarily - one of the constant themes here, and it's there throughout. As I progressed through the pages I felt so much more informed and aware about the condition - about what it is and what it isn't, and so on - but the beauty of the book is how this is interwoven into the fabric of Helen Fleet's life, friendships and relationships, frustrations, aspirations and observations.

What makes it so readable and compelling is the deftness with which it's been written, and the keen observational eye and wit as transplanted into the narrative voice of the main character. There is simultaneously a descriptive richness and an economy of expression throughout which can be playful, poignant, sad, laugh-out-loud hilarious, and many other things besides. The key is that the narrative never stoops to sentimentality or demands sympathy or pity from the reader. Rather than effectively say (for example), isn't this terrible, the text instead says this is how it is, and leaves it up to the reader to respond or empathise.

Where the pace of Helen Fleet's life is painfully slow due to her having pretty much been completely floored by the illness, this is brought into sharp relief thanks to glimpses of her friends and fellow students getting on with their lives - flirtations, sexual encounters, parties, studies - again all with a keen and witty eye for telling detail in terms of situations, atmosphere and dialogue.

Similarly, her relationships with friends, family members and with boyfriends are examined as much in terms of how they have to be reorganised or accommodated (or not) afresh, as they are in terms of loss or limitations. Again, all done with a refreshing frankness and straightforwardness: much of the power here though is in terms of what is not said, but is largely implicit.

While there can be seen to be a political element (in the broader sense) to The State of Me - rightly putting across a strong case against all the doubts and misconceptions that have surrounded a now more-understood but still-controversial illness, the strongest aspect of it for me is that it could be -in fact, is - a novel which stands up in its own right as being about so many other things besides.


Reading the Signs said...

Lovely review of the book, Trousers. I too relished the keen eye for detail and the sense that one has of being there in the moment with the horror and the beauty of all the particulars.

nmj said...

hey trews, i don't usually comment on posts that review my book, it seems wrong/uncool somehow for me to even be present on the comments, but i just want to say a big thank you for this. x

ps. i think your comments are playing up (my blog is too, cos it said zero comments, but then i found lovely signs already here!)

DJ Kirkby said...

Wow...excellent review! If I hadn't already read this wonderful book then your review would have made me want to buy a copy!

trousers said...

Hi signs and thank you - and you put it well "the sense that one has..." too.

nmj, I think I'd perhaps feel the same were I in your position - but I'm actually very pleased that you feel able comment on this here. So thank you in turn x

It appears you commented not too long after signs, maybe it was the timing that anything playing up? I'll keep an eye out though, since earlier when I went back to this post to edit a couple of typos etc, half of it was missing (though not when I came back to view the blog).

dj, well why not buy another copy as a result of reading the review!

Actually I feel now that I can read other people's reviews - I had avoided them partially in case there were any spoilers, and also because I didn't want to feel primed in any way by other people's views.

nmj said...

hey trews, i can't save in draft either just now, it will only save one version but not subsequent ones. & sorry to be off topic but can i just say that i think perhaps the tired stars of the lid are growing on me, albeit slowly slowly, they calmed me down tonight when i heard the mouse squeaking behind the washing machine.

trousers said...

nmj, I made sure I saved everything in text files just to make sure, once I realised it was playing silly buggers - didn't want to lose anything.

I think maybe that's the way Stars of the Lid work - if you're going to like it, it grows on you. Fingers crossed it sends the mice into a soporific stupor too :)

Fire Byrd said...

this is a great review, and if the book is as good as it, then it will be well worth reading.

trousers said...

Hi fire byrd, I've just been to look at some other reviews, and there does appear to be a consensus about the particular elements which make the book such a good read.

zola a social thing said...

Trousers : When you write THIS way I often refuse to read all the way until the end - I want to keep it for awhile and then finish it.
Great post me ole matey.

trousers said...

Thank you so much, zola!

BobTheBuilder said...

Excellent review, a new job beckons?

PS saw this in The Graun and immediately thought of you.

'In a below-the-belt ruling, a 17-year-old boy spent the night in a Florida jail last week, after he was arrested for the heinous crime of wearing low-slung trousers.'


trousers said...

If that's you merk, thanks! If it's not you merk, thanks!

I've had a scan of the article but will have a proper look later - sounds like a case of Opressed Trousers (I know, that was beyond terrible).

Merkin said...

I'll accept double thankx anytime!!

Ms Melancholy said...

Hey trousers - spot on review, there. It's a fab book and I have promised nmj that I will chuck it in the direction of any therapists who insist on the 'all in the mind' approach.

trousers said...

Thanks ms m - and yes, that sounds like a good idea.

Perhaps at a slight tangent, I was telling my mother about the book and the launch after I got back from Edinburgh, and it turns out that she knows or is fairly well-acquainted with someone who has ME: so she had far more "inside knowledge" than I would have ever realised.