A blog for everything bookish

Friday, 27 April 2012

State of Happiness by Stella Duffy

Never before have I been so lied to by a title. About to embark on what turned out to be a sub-zero camping trip, after the heaviest, most stressful beginning 3 months of the year of my working career, I bobbed down to the library and saw this lovely looking book – State of Happiness – with a lovely blue sky, sea, sunshine and flowers cover and thought ‘that’s it!’. I’ve read something by Duffy before (Theodora – see earlier review) and as one of those great female contemporary writing gems I discovered last year, I felt assured that this was the book that would soothe me into a state of relaxation in those long days lounging around in the tent.

How wrong I was.

State of Happiness follows the story of Cindy, a New York mapmaker and writer, who falls in love with Jack, an Englishman in New York, who she meets through her friend Kelly. Cindy is enjoying some success from the publication of her thesis and is a minor celebrity, as well as teaching on the side. Jack is a newsmaker. An unlikely pairing that surprises them both. Aside from mapping her own life, Cindy begins to map her life with Jack and finds it to her liking.

Then Cindy suffers an unexpected health scare, a sudden collapse whilst teaching. At the time nothing was found and Cindy and Jack continue their life together as normal. A minor bump in the road, that’s all.

Then Jack is offered a job in California. Cindy, a New York natural, has some questions about following, but after some soul searching and sage advice from her friend Kelly, decides to take this new fork in the road and follow him out there. After a short period of disappointment she, and Jack, begin to settle into their new life together. Cindy embarks on a project she’d been thinking about for some time, exploring the link between memory and maps, personal maps. Then one night she wakes to a pain in her chest and a new knowledge that the truly undiscovered country is the one we carry around with us, that the map of ourselves is inside us and as out of our control as the country around us.

After such a lovely start we then follow Cindy and Jack on their new path, a journey with terminal illness. An uplifting story, this is not. Poignant, sad (I actually cried when Cindy told her friend Kelly that she was dying) and written in a starkly unsentimental way, State of Happiness forces us to face the reality of what it means to lose the battle for life. Working with a subject which could all too easily becoming cloying, over emotional, sentimental, cliché ridden, Duffy manages to bring both clinical examination and raw emotion into the mix. Juxtaposing Cindy’s scientific, slightly obsessive mapping techniques and the stripped-painful reality of facing the uncertainty of facing a future which offers only pain and death, if anything, heightens the emption of the story, stripping it raw.

It’s not an easy read, and it certainly wasn’t what I was expecting (never judge a book by its cover, my son sagely reminded me) but it is an excellent book. Painful, certainly, but also enlightening and perhaps just exactly what I needed to read. Because as Cindy marches on her journey towards her end we are reminded that we are all on that journey but, unlike Cindy, we just don’t know it, or perhaps recognise it. And we should, wherever we can, live for the moment and enjoy what we have because the future is uncertain and unknown and we never really know how long we have or how our story, the map of our lives, will end.

A beautifully written, unflinching examination of one woman’s battle with terminal illness.

State of Happiness receives a brave 8 Biis.

And Stella Duffy – well, I’m definitely becoming a fan!