Monday, June 7, 2010

The State of Me: Nasim Marie Jafry

The more I read this book the more I liked it, so that by the end I wanted to keep on reading and find out what happens next in Helen’s life. It’s a love story set mainly in Scotland in the 80’s, but it’s also the story of a young woman who contracts the Coxsackie B virus and, following that, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, or ME. Helen Fleet narrates her own story, but from time to time a third-person narrator steps in to give a different perspective. Another handy technique is the ‘stranger’ who pops up from time to time to interview Helen and ask questions about the illness. In this way information (all accurate) about ME is imparted without seeming pedantic.

Helen is a typical university student, sharing a flat, going to parties, fancying the older student in the upstairs flat, travelling – until her third year when she gets sick and her normal life grinds to a halt.

We follow Helen’s life, doing the rounds of doctors and tests, the experimental treatments, the worst of the illness and the gradual increase in her ability to live an independent life. She has boyfriends, learns photography, eventually manages to complete her degree and can manage a few hours a week of volunteer work. Throughout it all, the narrator maintains a wry sense of humour and there are some gems to savour: “Jana came with her summer fling… He’s not circumcised, said Jana. Things are a bit baggy down there.”

There’s also the sadness of not living the same kind of life as other young people her age. One evening, after going to the cinema for the first time in years, she writes: “I’d loved the film and was euphoric to be mingling with other cinema-goers. They didn’t know that my head was shifting inside and that I wasn’t going back to my flat with my boyfriend, but back to my parents’ to hibernate.” Another time she writes about going to the careers office on campus: “I feel in awe of all the opportunities, looking through the toyshop window at the treasures I can never have: glittering jobs, glamorous placements, exotic Master’s degrees. I always check, but there are no jobs for four hours a week.” I know just how she feels, and I feel the same when I see positions advertised in wonderful exciting locations that I might once have applied for.

ME is a slightly different experience for each of us and there are many times when I think that the effort of trying to get across to a fully-abled person just how devastating and soul-destroying ME can be is a losing battle. This book does a great job of doing just that.