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.