I loved this first novel by Nasim Marie Jafry, but I suppose I should begin with a bit of disclosure. Jafry, like me, has a chronic illness, an immune system disorder known in the U.S. by the embarrassing name Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) and in Jafry’s Scotland and other countries as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME). She and I both write blogs about living with CFS/ME, and I have followed her blog for several years. So, it is as if an old friend (a virtual friend) has published her first novel.
The main character, Helen, is in college as the novel opens. She is smart and vibrant, living a typical college life, filled with classes, friends, parties, and boyfriends. Helen and her roommate, Jana, head off to France for a semester abroad, leaving Helen’s boyfriend Ivan behind. While in France, Helen suddenly becomes ill – so severely ill that she has to return home to her parents’ house in Scotland. As you might have guessed from my introduction, Helen is eventually diagnosed with ME. The novel follows the next fifteen years of Helen’s life, as she struggles with learning to live with her illness and find romance.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from The State of Me. After all, I live with the challenges of this illness myself every day. Why would I want to read about it in my fiction as well? I wondered whether the book would be depressing – 500 pages of living with ME.
I was pleasantly surprised, though. For starters, the novel is very well written, with realistic dialogue, characters that you come to care about, and an engaging and fast-paced plot. A fast-paced book about being bed-ridden? Yes! Jafry is a wonderful writer, and she brings her characters alive so that you can’t wait to turn the page and see what happens next. In fact, I read this hefty novel in only a few days because once I started, I had trouble putting it down. And it wasn’t at all depressing. Funny, sexy, uplifting, sometimes a bit sad, but never depressing.
Although Jafry does address issues related to ME/CFS in the novel, she does it in a way that doesn’t detract from the fact that this book is, first and foremost, a novel. It’s about so much more than living with chronic illness. It’s a book about friendship, family, love, and life. I came to care about Helen and wanted things to turn out well for her. I laughed out loud, cheered her on, and yelled at her. After all, isn’t that what fiction is supposed to do – make us feel something? By the time I finished The State of Me, I felt as if its characters were a part of my own life, and I was sorry to say good-bye.
(P.S. Besides enjoying the characters and plot, I had fun with the language of this novel, since it was written by a Scot. I enjoyed trying to figure out what the Scottish words and phrases meant from context and was mostly successful. I had no trouble translating brolly to umbrella by the way it was used, for instance, although I am still wondering what kind of holiday Hogmanay is?)
You can visit the author's blog here.
NOTE: The book was published in the UK, so US readers probably won't find it in bookstores, but it can be ordered from amazon's U.S. site and is even eligible for free shipping (with a total order of $25 or more). You can use the link below to get to the correct listing at amazon.