“17 Brushes with Death”

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

Subtitled “17 Brushes With Death” O’Farrell’s memoir was recently longlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize, and I (and others on our shadow panel) were devastated when it wasn’t shortlisted. For me, it could have replaced Ayobami’s Stay With Me or perhaps Rausing’s Mayhem, although I can understand the latter’s inclusion due to the quality of the writing.  However, I’m getting ahead of myself, let me tell you a little about the book.

Taking her title from a line in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, O’Farrell’s episodic memoir literally shares 17 brushes with death that she has experienced throughout her life. Each brush with death gets a chapter, entitled by the part of her body that was affected, be it just her head, or her whole body for example. They aren’t told chronologically, moving back and forwards through her life, but they do build up a picture of a determined woman who really wants to live. I really loved the structure of the book.

She chooses to begin with ‘Neck’ which happened in 1990 when she was just eighteen and working as a chalet girl in a retreat in the Scottish glens. On her free afternoons she often walks up into the mountains.  This is how the book opens:

On the path ahead, stepping out from behind a boulder, a man appears. […]

I realise several things. That I passed him earlier, further down the glen. We greeted each other, in the amiable yet brief manner of those on a country walk. That, on this remote stretch of path, there is no one near enough to hear me call. That he has been waiting for me: he has planned this whole thing, carefully, meticulously, and I have walked into his trap.

I see this all in an instant.

She had me on page one! It’s a bravura and shocking start, especially as you find out at the end of the chapter that a few weeks later, the man raped and strangled a girl with his binocular strap. After this electric opening, I couldn’t put the book down.  She has several more close shaves, nearly drowns – she suffers an inability to spatially orient herself.

Not all the brushes with death she describes have this degree of danger involved, many are medical, from her childhood encephalitis to her experiences of pregnancy, IVF, childbirth, miscarriage and stillbirth.  O’Farrell now has three children, but it’s the plight of her middle child that rends our hearts further. She was born with a multiplicity of life-threatening allergies and the O’Farrells have to always be prepared for the dash to hospital wherever they are, and it happens frequently:

The effects of living with a child who has a life-threatening condition, of loving someone who could, at any moment, be snatched from you? I think about this a lot.

Your lives are conducted with a constant background hum of potential peril. You begin to experience the world differently. […]  You become ferociously, uncharacteristically organised.

O’Farrell is totally candid with us, whether talking about a moment of recklessness that could have killed her; occasions like being in a plummeting airplane when there is nothing you can do; or her badly mismanaged labour at an understaffed hospital.  There are too, moments of epiphany after having survived a brush with death, when life is reaffirmed, more worth living.  She never gives in to self-pity, but the reader can’t help but feel for her and her family and their road ahead. One thing is sure, O’Farrell writes with such vitality, that we really hope she has a lot of living still to do.

I can’t believe that this was the first book by Maggie O’Farrell that I’ve read. Friends, bloggers, the whole universe have been raving about her novels for years, but I never got around to reading any. This brave memoir blew me away. (10/10)

So which of her novels should I start with?

Read also reviews by: Harriet at Shiny New Books and Clare at A Little Blog of Books

Source: Own copy. Maggie O’Farrell, I Am, I Am, I Am (Tinder, 2017) Hardback, 304 pages.

BUY from Amazon UK below (affiliate link). NB: paperback out on May 31st.

4 thoughts on ““17 Brushes with Death”

  1. Rebecca Foster says:

    I’m glad you liked this so much! It would definitely have been shortlisted if we ran the show. My favourite of her novels (though I haven’t read her first three yet) is The Hand that First Held Mine. Instructions for a Heatwave and This Must be the Place are also very good.

  2. Susan Kavanagh says:

    I would start with her first book After You’d Gone and then to the Secret Life of Esme Lennox.

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