Originally published: August 2017
Author: Maggie O’Farrell
Published by: Tinder Press
Set in: Worldwide
Page count: 285
Reading dates: 10-12 June 2018
Star Rating: 5/5
I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
I Am, I Am, I Am, Seventeen Brushes with Death is the memoir of author Maggie O’Farrell. I’ve read a couple of her novels (This Must be the Place and Instructions for a Heatwave) and I really like her storytelling. I brought the hardback of this book back when it came out in August 2017 because it sounded fascinating and because the cover was so striking. But then it languished on my TBR shelf until now – I think I just knew I would love it and wanted to savour the anticipation!
I Am I Am I Am details seventeen brushes with death that O’Farrell has had. These stem from a mixture of recklessness (jumping into the sea at night and almost drowning) and just bad luck (childhood encephalitis). Some are startling but soon forgotten, others have stayed with her and are life changing.
One of the most chilling events is when at 18 and working in a remote holiday camp, O’Farrell takes a walk, up a nearby mountain and comes to realise the man she had passed on her way up the mountain is waiting for her and blocking her way. She immediately senses danger and as he places his binocular strap around her neck, her instinct is to talk and talk, until she eventually get away. She reports the event to the police who don’t take her very seriously. But two weeks later, they come to see her asking her again what happened. We find a young woman has been raped and strangled.
There is nothing unique or special in a near-death experience. They are not rare; everyone, I would venture, has had them, at one time or another perhaps without even realising it. The brush of a van too close to your bicycle, the tired medic who realises that a dosage ought to be checked one final time, the driver who has drunk too much and is reluctantly persuaded to relinquish the car keys, the train missed after sleeping through an alarm, the aeroplane not caught, the virus never inhaled, the assailant never encountered, the path not taken. We are, all of us, wondering about in a state of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when the axe may fall.
The memoir jumps around to different times in her life and each chapter is named according to a part of the body – circulatory system, lungs, neck and so on – underlining which area is in the most danger. I had to keep referring to earlier chapters to see where each new chapter fitted into her life but I didn’t mind this format (but would love to know why she wrote it like this). She has a good way of writing so that each chapter is filled with tension (even though we know she doesn’t die) and that’s clever.
The last chapter talks about her 8-year-old daughter who has a severe immune disorder and on average suffers 12-15 allergic reactions a year and the fear her and her husband fear constantly about her health. I was in tears by the end – her writing is emotional and as a parent I can imagine what her family must be going through.
This book is amazing and I urge everyone to read it!
It was not so much that I didn’t value my existence but more that I had an insatiable desire to push myself to embrace all that it could offer. Nearly losing my life at the age of 8 made me sanguine – perhaps to a fault – about death. I knew it would happen, at some point, and the idea didn’t scare me; its proximity felt instead almost familiar
About the author:
O’Farrell was born in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, and grew up in Wales and Scotland. At the age of eight she missed a year of school due to a viral infection.
She has worked as a journalist, both in Hong Kong and as the deputy literary editor of The Independent on Sunday. She has also taught creative writing.
O’Farrell is married to fellow novelist William Sutcliffe, whom she met at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. They now live together in Edinburgh, with their three children.