I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell

i am i amI Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is an astonishing memoir, a celebration of the tenacity for which we cling to life while on the edge of death.

It chronicles 17 occasions when Maggie O’Farrell came close to death and how those experiences have shaped her outlook on life and her attitude towards her children.

Her close encounters with death began with the sudden onset of viral encephalitis at eight years old. It rendered her incapable of speech and robbed her of the ability to walk. Medical experts put her chances of full recovery at next to nothing. But they had not reckoned with this girl’s determination to beat the odds.

O’Farrell reflects that “a near-death experience changes you for ever: you come back from the brink altered, wiser, sadder”. And yet the evidence of this book speaks to the contrary. In the middle of a crisis, she often berates herself for having not thought more carefully about her actions. Was it wise, she wonders in hindsight,  to have taken that evening walk around a remote late in Chile (she was seized from behind by a thief who presses a machete against her throat)? Why had she trusted the holiday maker and tried to wade out to a diving platform in the Indian Ocean with her young son ( a non swimmer)? Why had she been the one to leap off a harbour wall into the sea as a teenager?

What drives her actions is often her intense desire for freedom: to break free from all bonds.

It is an urge so strong, so all-encompassing that it overwhelms everything else. I cannot stand my life as it is. I cannot stand to be here, in this town, in this school. I have to get away.

In her quest for that freedom, O’Farrell becomes a risk taker. It’s as if, having survived once, she is determined forever after to stick two fingers up to death. To face it down.

Her life is one crammed to the brim with accidents, illness and frighteningly close calls. They include a haemorrhage during a too-long delayed cesarean section, amoebic dysentery picked up on holiday in China, a close encounter with a blindfolded circus knife-thrower, and a narrow escape from a murderer .

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is consequently built upon drama, piling one hair-raising moment on another. On a walk up a mountain she escapes from a murderer by prattling on about ducks; on a flight to Hong Kong the plane plummets; on holiday in France she fumbles desperately for the door lock when two strange men approach the car in which she is feeding her new born baby.

This book could easily have become little more than a litany of episodes but O’Farrell has this knack of balancing the drama with reflection as she looks to make sense of her extraordinary life.

It’s one in which she has had cause to be thankful for the vast array of medical practitioners she has encountered over the years. Mostly she recalls their kindnesses: the unknown man who held her hand while surgeons battled to save her life in a theatre awash with her blood. She never saw him again but recalls even now the touch of his hand. Or the nurse who refused to leave the consulting room where the young Maggie O’Farrell was seeing a pediatric specialist. Decades later she hears he has been revealed as a paedophile.

Her life continues to involve “a fair amount of sprinting along hospital corridors” but now it’s her daughter that requires emergency medical treatment. Born with a severe immune disorder this child can have between 12 and 15 severe anaphylactic shocks a year.  It means O’Farrell and her husband are constantly on the alert for any encounter that could trigger a reaction.

It’s this final section of the book that I found the most powerfull and compelling. It’s brim full of the anxiety she felt as a young mum faced with a small child who is covered head to toe in burning, itching, bleeding eczema. She shares her feelings of desolation and helplessness and how the desire to protect her daughter is overwhelming.

Ultimately this isn’t a book about death or danger. It’s about life and love. Though O’Farrell concedes that our life on life is fragile:

We are, all of us, wandering 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.

her book is really a message to her daughter that the human spirit is a resilient one. It can  meet with danger and endure trauma. And can still bounce back.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is an intense reading experience. But it’s one that is the highlight of my year so far.









About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on January 19, 2019, in Book Reviews, British authors, Non fiction and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. I found this book really powerful, and I loved the range of experiences O’Farrell shared. It made me want to write about my own near-death experience and how it shaped me. Maybe because I’m not a parent, but I didn’t find the chapter about her daughter as interesting though of course I was sympathetic.

    • I’m not a parent either but I found it so moving to hear about this little baby suffering…. Now of course you have intrigued me with reference to your “own near death experience” . Do tell…..

      • I was hit by a car when I was 14, and it was pretty severe. Two weeks in the hospital and a month in a wheelchair. There’s about a 24 hour period I don’t remember (thankfully). I like what O’Farrell says about feeling like you’re lucky even when something horrible happens to you – because I always felt I was really lucky.

        • That would have been a frightening time, wondering if you would ever get out of the wheelchair. And coming at such a vulnerable time in your life

        • This will sound strange, but it had its positives and negatives actually. I did appreciate all the attention, and I learned a lot from the experience. I was very lucky not to have head or spinal injuries, and the injuries I did have just took time to heal. I wasnt a real active kid or I would have had a much harder time.

  2. I really enjoyed these stories too, but they are intense. I could only read 1 or 2 at a time. The brush with the murderer reminded me of a scene in Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam (that he claimed was based on something that actually happened to him) whilst walking in the countryside – made me wonder if they’d had the same close call with the same murderer!

  3. Wow. Sounds like a pretty intense read.

  4. I looked forward to reading this with some trepidation. I’m glad I did read it, as the author has a good, flowing writing style and her overall subject – the vagaries of life and death – is appealing. However, I can’t say I enjoyed this book. I will read more by O’Farrell but for me this was not one of her best.

    Here’s my ‘review’ (not nearly as comprehensive or useful as yours, I’m afraid): https://arugandabook.wordpress.com/2018/04/14/i-am-i-am-i-am/

    • I meant to mention another book which looks at episodes in a writer’s life from a different perspective. In ‘Making it Up’, Penelope Lively takes various incidents from her own past and imagines how they might have had a different outcome. I found this a fascinating and imaginative approach – one that any aspiring writer might try, to get their creative ‘juices’ flowing.

    • Just read your review. Ok I understand why you say only two of these episodes are really ‘life threatening’ but I’d argue that the others still bring her uncomfortably close to that….Though I’ve had a lot of experiences in my life, there is no way I could make them as coherent as she does

  5. I’ve heard many good things about this book and I have to admit that I didn’t rush out to get a copy because I was worried it would be little more than a litany of awful events… I am sure I will read it and I’m far more likely to now you’ve reassured me on that point.

    • It could so easily have been a litany Cleo. She cleverly avoids this by jumping around with timeframes so although for example there are references early on to the fact she was in a wheelchair while a child, its not until the last quarter of the book that you learn what happened.

  6. I felt like a shameful coward just reading your review. My grandmother influenced my younger years with her fear and worry and it has been hard to shake. But maybe I could gain some courage from this book. I have not ever read anything by Maggie O’Farrell I did not love.

  7. This was one of my best reads last year. Great review 🙂

  8. This book sounds really scary and interesting at the same time. Seventeen brushes with death is a lot.

  9. I’ve heard so many good things about this one, but have been holding off because it does seem like it’s very intense and emotional. Fantastic review, I got such a good sense of it from your thoughts and the quotes you shared!

  10. Anything Maggie O’Farrell writes is always going straight to the top of the tbr pile, but this was an unexpected – well pleasure doesn’t seem like quite the right word – privilege almost. It could have been very depressing but somehow you come away from it uplifted by the strength of the human spirit.

    • I hear you, it seems strange to say that it was a pleasurable experience hearing about someone else’s miserable experience. she is a far braver person than I am, I suspect having had all those events I would be wondering “Why me? What have I done to deserve this?”

  11. This is a brilliant book, it was shocking and frightening at times but always perfectly expressed.

  12. She must be one tough woman to deal with all that. But I do agree that we tend to forget that life is tenuous and hangs by a thread and that thread could break at any point without warning…

  13. Not heard of this book, but it sounds like it delivers lots of food for thought.

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