"I must admit I've been waiting for ages to read Nasim Marie Jafry's debut novel 'The State of Me' for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because I'd heard from a couple of people that she writes beautifully - always a good thing - but secondly because it focuses on ME, which I know very little about.
When I was diagnosed with MS nine years ago, it was pretty horrible, but daft as it sounds the worst part of it was having to tell people, especially given that I worked in a 70+ hours per week kind of environment.
Very macho and testosterone-laden.
Computer programming, its war at the sharp end.
Despite my natural inclination being to keep it to myself, I can remember sitting my boss down and telling him I had MS, more worried about his reaction than anything it might mean to me.
His first response (and why I personalise this) was to say,
'That doesn't exist, it isn't a real disease'
Which took me aback a wee bit, until he realised that I'd said MS not ME as he first thought.
Then of course all was well (as he gently put it later 'he'd have a cripple on the team which would look good for personnel') and he and the company were pretty brilliant as it happens. They knew what they were facing and had a procedure for dealing with it, with me. I had a real disease.
That was 1999, and the reason I mention it was that even then, a decade after The State of Me is initially set, nobody really knew much about or understood what ME was, other than its reputation as a good excuse for Yuppies to retire to the Seychelles with a big payoff. And to be honest unless you are touched by it with a friend or family member being struck down in this way, I'm not sure it is any different now.
Nasim Jafry's The State of Me is the story of a student called Helen who is debilitated by a mystery illness whilst travelling from her home in Scotland for her placement year in France. Set in the 1980s, the book then follows the effect the disease has upon the lives of Helen, her friends and family over the next dozen years. Initially she struggles to be believed that she is in fact ill rather than malingering, before the trial-and-error approach of the NHS starts as a search for an effective treatment is undertaken.
The first thing that struck me about The State of Me was the simplicity of the writing, and I mean simple in terms of making it look easy, which is the hardest simple of all. I understand that the author spent nine years writing the book and I can well believe that the majority of the time was spent stripping away layers of description and unnecessary frills - there are no kitchen sinks thrown in, which you often find in a debut novel - instead Jafry has spent her time well, honing it down to the bare necessities, although there is a hint of experimentalism with imaginary conversations with strangers, but these enhance the telling, rather than detract.
It has to be said that she has a quite beautiful tone throughout that is very natural and has a poets ability to recognise the weight of words, using them carefully to highlight what really matters with quirky observations and asides. This isn't an easy trick to pull off, and it only emphasises the confidence she has in her writing, or perhaps that the obsessiveness displayed by Helen is also shared by Jafry. You are left questioning whether this attention to the minutiae is a side effect of the disease, or was always there, for character and author alike.
And throughout the book there is a lot of detail about ME, its symptoms, the lack of understanding of the medical profession and the paucity of ideas when it came to its treatment. But despite this Jafry never forgets that it is very much a novel, and you are not left feeling that you have inadvertently picked up an idiots guide to the disease. It gets its message across in the best way by drawing believable characters that you 'care' about, whether through love, hate or pity, and places them in an environment and in situations that are easily believed, familiar. Best of all she does it with a wry humour and self-awareness that is entirely endearing.
The character of Ivan is probably the best example of this. Initially you are introduced to him as Helen's student boyfriend, with all the self-centred traits that usually entails, and you know that once she becomes ill he is destined to desert her, and initially that seems to be the case. More to the point in 99% of novels he would be that two-dimensional character - the bastard. But I think this is where Jafry's talent for observing people is really displayed, real people don't necessarily act in predictable ways, and whilst Ivan does at times follow the obvious path set out for him, he is more complex than that.
Despite Helen and Ivan drifting apart, he still cares; he still looks after her, and does the little things that make a difference. He hurts her by going his own way, but he is neither the bastard nor the comfort blanket, he is realistic and he is complex despite the fact that he isn't 'the lead' character, although the relationship between him and Helen is pivotal to the novel's success.
This attention to detail is something Jafry brings to even the most passing of strangers. They are all believably real, whether it is the poisonous granny who won't accept that Helen is ill or the helpful "New Age advice received from Helen's friends stepmother and her anger and disappointment when Helen has already tried them all. When you have an 'illness' people don't respond to you naturally, they often want to help but don't know how and become embarrased and angry. This truth, seen throughout Jafry's book is something I found particularly recognisable.
The other element that makes this book stand out as something unusual and the author quite brilliant is the imaginative use of pace. This is almost tied to the effects of ME on Helen. Initially the book is fast " Helen is young, popular, vibrant and on an adventure, but as the illness kicks-in, the pace slows as first the shock and then the reality of what it means becomes apparent. The first section of the book decelerates and you feel the lethargy taking over, as Helens frustration at quite simply not being able to do much apart from sleep shrinks her world until she is left as a spectator, stuck in time, as her friends and familys lives move ever faster. Stranded she almost becomes a narrator upon their lives, living through them, unable to participate and desperate not to be left behind.
In the later sections as Helen finds ways of coping and living with the disease, the pace reflects this and slowly as she redefines her own world the disease becomes more of a fact of life that needs to be accommodated rather than the all consuming reason. As Helen starts to move forward, catching up with the lives of her friends and family the book gently pulls you into the "new Helens reality and delivers something uplifting and hope filled.
The obvious question with a book that is so centred on the effects of a disease is whether it can truly work as a novel, and there are plenty of examples of 'misery-lit' that would say that it can't. That Jafry has ME and has used this as the basis for a novel puts it into a difficult place, and you find yourself wondering what is the fact and what is the fiction.
Ultimately though, it really doesnt matter as you realise that whether she had been talking about a character with ME or a nose flute player from Abersychan, the quality of the writing and her grasp of what makes a good book would mean that whatever she had chosen to write about, the end result would have been exquisite.
So if this is "Mis-lit and the new rule is that it cant work, I'm pleased to say that The State of Me is very much the exception, and that in Nasim Jafry The Friday Project has found another quite exceptionally talented author.
This is a novel that deserves to win awards, not for 'raising awareness' or for campaigning, but because it is quite simply one of the most beautifully written and perfectly paced books I or you, have read in years."show more