512 pages, The Friday Project (HarperCollins)
Review by J. S. Colley
After reading the blurb for this book, I expected it to be different, but I say that in a good way. I expected it to be full of accounts of doctors’ visits, of woe-is-me narrative, of medical terms and explanations. While it contains a smattering of some of those things, the main focus is the inner life of a twenty-something girl, living in the 80s in Scotland, who’s striving to become a responsible adult and who also happens to be struggling to cope with a little-known, and little understood, disease called ME, which stands for myalgic encephalomyelitis. I think the title says is all, The State of Me, with lower case e.
This is one of those books that tells a story through the "quiet everyday." The beauty of it is in the unadorned telling. This is not an action-packed story but rather an unfolding of events. If you look, there’s a lot of meaning packed into simple statements, like this foreboding, and telling, proclamation when the protagonist, Helen Fleet, is skating with friends and is about to experience the first signs of the disease: "I could skate better backwards than forwards. I had more control going backwards."
What I found interesting is that—even though I have also dealt with an often debilitating, non-visually-apparent disease (my own made-up non-medical phrase!)—I, at times, found myself thinking, try and enjoy yourself, Helen; go to that party; make an effort! So, it’s easy to imagine people who’ve never experienced anything like it being unsympathetic to Helen’s condition. But Jafry does not beat the reader over the head in an effort to convince anyone of the validity of ME. This is not a preachy book. The author doesn’t spend a lot of time bashing the often inept medical profession or the skeptics. And that’s why it works so well. Jafry simply tells her story, often with a touch of humor.
I have to note this: I started reading the book late at night and, about a third of the way into it, I thought the dramatic tension might be getting lost in the simple unfolding of events. I didn’t know if it was because I was tired, or because of my own issues with "brain fog" and fatigue, but I closed the book for the night. When I picked it up again the next day, I found that I was fully engaged in the story again. So, if you find the book slows down a little, keep going, it’s worth it.
I can’t do this review without stating that one of my favorite characters, although he doesn’t have a huge role, is Nab, Helen’s stepfather. I’d love to have someone like that in my life—patient, calm, kind, and understanding. Another thing I enjoyed was Helen’s imaginary conversations with a stranger. I thought this was a really clever way of giving the reader information about the disease without it being boring.
One of the major relationships explored in the book is between Helen and her boyfriend, Ivan, whom she met before contracting the disease. Would the dynamic of their relationship have played out differently if she’d never gotten sick? (Of course it would have, as would have all her relationships.) Did she give Ivan too much leeway? I wonder. (I could talk a lot more about this, but then there would be spoilers!)
There are many other notable characters, like Brian, Helen’s uncle who has Down syndrome. Brian gives another perspective on what it’s like to be disabled, since his condition is outwardly apparent, while Helen’s is not.
The story is set in the UK, and there are some references I didn’t understand, (how nice it is to be able to look words or phrases up on my Kindle Fire!), including references about their health and welfare system, but it didn’t deter me from enjoying the story.
Finally, I loved the way the book ended, which surprised me, to be honest. I can’t tell you why it surprised me, because it would contain spoilers. However, I can tell you the reader is left with a sense of hope.
The State of Me is not just for those who suffer with ME, or a similar illness, but anyone who enjoys a well-written and engaging story. It’s about family, friendship, and love, and standing up to what life throws at you.