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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.









#20booksofsummer wrap up

20booksof summerYes I know it’s no longer summer but better late than never I suppose. So here is the outcome of the first reading challenge I have ever completed (drum roll and applause please….)

I knew I would never get through 20 books so took advantage of the flexible choices offered by Cathy at and went for 10 books. When I made the list I was trying to be clever by doubling up on titles that could also count for three other projects: Women in Translation month, AllVirago/AllAugust challenge (hop over to heavenali’s blog to find out more about this) and my own Booker prize project.

I’m a bit behind on the reviews but am slowly catching up. So here’s what I accomplished – there were some hits, some also rans and some down right failures..

  1. This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell – Excellent Read –review posted here 
  2. NW by Zadie Smith Read it – Dazzling in some ways but not sure I saw the point of it review posted here
  3. High Rising by Angela Thirkell Read – Read but not a great choice for me review posted here 
  4. A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford Thoroughly enjoyed this – review posted here Counted this for AllAugust/All Virago
  5. Last Orders by Graham Swift. Read and enjoyed in parts review posted here  I double counted this for my Booker project
  6. The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis. Read and enjoyed the humour – review not yet written. I double counted this for my Booker project
  7. Life & Times of Michael K  by J M Coetzee. Read but review not yet written because I haven’t made up my mind what I think of it.  I double counted this for my Booker project
  8. The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimimanda Adichie Read – enjoyed the style, left me wanting more Review posted here 
  9. Fear and Trembling by Amelie Northomb Read – Enjoyable take on Japanese culture review posted here  Double counted this for Women in Translation Month
  10. Tree of Life by Maryse Conde: Read it but it was a bit of a slog. Review posted here Also counted towards Women in Translation month

I had a few back up titles on my list originally so I could change my mind if needed. The back ups were:

The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester. A dud – did not finish review posted here 

Frost in May by Antonia White never got around to reading this but it was a re-read anyway

An Elergy for Easterly by Petina Gappah Started to read it but ran out of time 

Overall  I enjoyed the experience. Because I chose the entry level I never felt overwhelmed by what I still had to read. So I’ll be back again next year assuming Cathy decides to continue the venture that is.

This Must be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell: Review

this must be the placeMaggie O’Farrell’s latest novel This Must be the Place, is a dazzling portrait of broken relationships and secrets from which we can try to run, but never escape. Everyone in this novel seems to be stumbling and struggling along, hoping that at some point they will find what is missing in their life. What’s missing is the place. And that place is home.

Take the central figure of Daniel Sullivan. He’s a US academic who has drifted into life in a remote part of Ireland with his stunning, eccentric wife.  Claudette Wells was once the world’s biggest film stars but then vanished from public view when she staged a disappearing act while on holiday, leaving everyone including her film director husband to believe she was dead. Life is complex enough when your wife readily takes pot shots at anyone who comes close to breaching her privacy but Daniel has further complications in his life.  He has children living in California that he never sees and a father in Brooklyn that he dislikes intensely. He doesn’t realise however just how fragile his life is until the day a radio program triggers a memory about a former girlfriend he lost touch with twenty years ago.  He should be en route to Brooklyn to mark his father’s 90th birthday but the program has unsettled him so instead he sits on a park bench and reflects:

…my life has been a series of elisions, cover-ups, dropped stitches in knitting. To all appearances, I am a husband, a father, a teacher, a citizen, but when tilted towards the light I become a deserter, a sham, a killer, a thief. On the surface I am one thing but underneath I am riddled with holes and caverns, like a limestone landscape.

Its a contemplation which ends in a journey to right the wrongs of his past; a journey that will threaten his career and his sanity and jeopardise his marriage.

It is possible, I think … to see ailing marriages as brains that have undergone a stroke. Certain connections short-circuit, abilities are lost, cognition suffers, a thousand neural pathways close down for ever. Some strokes are massive, seminal, unignorable, others imperceptible. I’m told its perfectly possible to suffer one and not realise it until much later.

Whether he can make his way home again and re-establish his relationship with Charlotte is a question mark that hangs over the latter half of the book.

O’Farrell crosses time zones and continents to construct Daniel and Claudette’s stories through their own eyes and those around them. The children of their various relationships get their turn as narrators, as do her ex husband and personal assistants. Each chapter is told from a different point of view, relating events that occurred either years earlier or years later than the previous chapter. As readers we never know who’s going to appear next to tell their bit of the story. It also means that we see the gulf between how characters think of themselves and how they are perceived by others.

This Must be The Place is also replete with experiments in style. One chapter narrated by Daniel’s eldest son Niall, uses detailed footnotes to expand on his observations; another portrays Claudette’s life as an actress through illustrations from an auction catalogue of memorabilia. It’s a risky strategy but O’Farrell pulls it off with aplomb, creating an exceptional novel that has now supplanted The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox as my favourite O’Farrell novel. Surely This Must be The Place is a strong contender for some literary prizes?

End Note

This Must Be The Place by Maggie O’Farrell is published in the UK by Tinder Press. It’s her seventh novel. There’s a good colour piece about her published by The Independent newspaper – see it here

This is book #1 from my #20booksofsummer list




Snapshot June 2016

Hello JuneJune 1 was a momentous day at work as the company for whom I work was aquired by a much bigger corporation. We’ve been working on the communications around this for six months so it was a relief to get to the end of yesterday without any glitches. By the time I got home however I had zero energy stores left to even think what I was reading on the first of the month.

I can’t imagine however that anyone but me is bothered in the slightest degree that my snapshot of the month is a day late….

Recently Finished

I finished a run of highly enjoyable novels (The Gathering by Anne Enright, Rites of Passage by William Golding and The Woman Next Door by  Yewande Omotoso) I went into a dip with Nina Bawden’s The Ice House.  This was published by Virago in 1983 in their Modern Classics series as a novel about a friendship between two girls that lasts the decades from early childhood but is threatened by an act of deception. It started well but about two thirds of the way through I began to lose interest. It’s the third of Bawden’s novels I’ve read. A Little Love, A Little Learning was the first – and by far the best. Next up was The Solitary Child, an early work which I thought very lacklustre. The Ice House fell somewhere in the middle. Maybe I just need to choose more careful next time.

Currently reading 

Having taken the plunge and joined the 20 Books of Summer Challenge (I’ve opted for the gentler option of 10 books), I’m delighted that the first book – This Must be the Place – is a delight. Maggie O’Farrell is one of those authors that you can buy with a high degree of confidence that between the covers will be some laser-eyed observations about life, emotions and relationships. With other authors that could send alarm signals about pretentiousness but with O’Farrell there is no BS factor, just a darn good story told usually in fragments.  This Must be the Place is little short of a delight. It leaps across multiple continents, decades and people as it gives a portrait of a marriage and decisions that could put it in jeopardy. The only challenge in reading this book is that I’m reluctant to put it down at the end of the evening and go to sleep.


Still looking for some excitement

Usually at this time of the year I’m frantically adding upcoming newly-published titles to my reading wishlist. Maybe I’m in a peculiar mood but this year I’m struggling to find much to excite me among the forthcoming books. It isn’t as if there is a dirth of new stuff coming out but nothing so far that has really lit the fire.

maggie o'farrellOne bright spot on the horizon is news that Maggie O’Farrell will publish her seventh novel in May. Just wish I didn’t have to wait so long. According to the blurb “This Must Be The Place crosses continents and time zones, giving voice to a diverse and complex cast of characters. At its heart, it is an extraordinary portrait of a marriage, the forces that hold it together and the pressures that drive it apart.” With O’Farrell I am certain this will be enjoyable but I’m rather perplexed by the marketing puff on the front cover. How can this be described by the publisher as a “Sunday Times best seller ” if it hasn’t been published yet?? I just checked this weekend’s copy of the newspaper and there’s no mention of it and certainly no appearance in their best seller listing… Supreme confidence in their author or blatant hype??


So far I just have five other 2016 titles on my wishlist.

Olduvaireads pointed me to French Concession: A Novel  by the renowned Chinese author Xiao Bai.This is the first of his works to be available in English and is a story of espionage set in 1930s Shanghai.

From The Millions List of Most anticipated books  I have taken a shine to
coverThe Happy Marriage by Tahar Ben Jelloun which is about the dissolution of a marriage between a renowned painter and his wife. That synopsis on its own wouldn’t be enough to get my attention but the setting and historical context make it more appealing – its set against the backdrop of Casablanca in the midst of an awakening women’s rights movement.

Am I the only person in the world who hasn’t read Elizabeth Strout’s Burgess Boys or her Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge? Ok so maybe there are a few people who missed out on both of these and I was going to complete the hat trick by giving her latest novel,  My Name Is Lucy Barton a miss. But then I read this description from a blogger whose opinion I value. “… a book that is so close to perfection,” is how Thinking in Fragments described My Name is Lucy Barton. Now it would be utterly foolish of me to ignore perfection wouldn’t it??  Onto the list it’s gone.

I’m not absolutely sure about this next choice. It’s The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel. Like his Booker Prize winning Life of Pi this is described as an allegory, told in the form of three intersecting stories and three different points of time – 1904, 1939 and 1989. Has Mantel produced something as magically bizarre as Life of Pi?  One disappointment before I even open the first page   “there are no tigers in this fabulous new book” announced the publishers Canongate. I call that mean….

And finally, a debut novel Shelter by Jung Yun, a young author originally from South Korea. I’ve been looking for an author from that part of the world and when I saw that Yun names J.M Coetzee as one of her influences, my interest level shot up. Shelter is about a husband, father and college professor who gets into such deep  financial trouble he can no longer afford his home. His parents, whom he hates because they never showed him warmth, move in with him. Tension mounts, anger comes to the surface, deep seated resentment boils over..

So that’s it. Fairly lean pickings unfortunately.

What am I missing? Do tell me if you’ve spotted a gem.

In short: Bawden and O’Farrell

I surrender. My brilliant plan to use the Christmas break to catch up on all my outstanding reviews from 2014 came to nothing. And now it’s nearly the end of January and they are still not done. If I leave it much longer with some of them I will have completely forgotten what I thought of some books. Hence I’m going to do a round up of some books I enjoyed by women authors but don’t have a tremendous amount to say about any one of them.

Nina Bawden

Little LoveI’d never read anything by Nina Bawden until I found a Virago edition of A Little Love, a Little Learning in a charity shop in Oxford. Published in 1965 this novel is based on the idea that people often create facades behind which they try to hide the truth, even from themselves. The family in this novel seem to live unremarkable suburban lives until their equilibrium is disturbed by the arrival of an old friend with an insatiable appetite for gossip who is seeking refuge from her husband. It’s not her indiscrete tittle tattle that throws the family into chaos, but the improvisations and imagination of the middle daughter Kate. This is a story that could so easily have been sentimental and twee but Bawden’s finely tuned understanding of human psychology, and particularly of a young girl who doesn’t understand the impact of her actions, makes this a delightful read.

SolitaryChildHaving enjoyed this I couldn’t resist an offer from on on-line store for some Bello e-versions of other Bawden titles. Solitary Child, the only one I’ve read so far, was rather a disappointment however. The central figure is a Harriet who comes out of her shell when she falls in love with a wealthy gentleman farmer. He seems a good catch but James Random has a past he cannot shake off; he had been charged with the murder of his first wife. Though acquitted, he’s not entirely free of the suspicions of his neighbours and, increasingly Harriet. Their relationship disintegrates when James’ errant daughter arrives back on the scene, Bawden tried to create a a dark and unsettling atmosphere in which were never really sure whether Heather is right to be suspicious. She was never a completely convincing character for me and the drama of the ending lacked credibility.

Maggie O’Farrell

My introduction to Maggie O’Farrell came with her third novel, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, a haunting book in which she unravels family secrets kept hidden for sixty years.  heatwaveHer sixth novel, Instructions for a Heatwave  treads a similar path of revelations and a complex interplay of emotions within the family structure. The trigger is the sudden, and unexpected disappearance of a devoted husband and father of three adult children. Robert Riordan, newly retired, goes out to buy a newspaper one morning and never returns. His children congregate at the family home to support his wife Gretta who maintains she has no idea where he is or why he left.  Recriminations and accusations multiply over the next few days, the temperature inside the house matching the sizzling conditions experienced out on the London streets. It’s a beautifully crafted story with a cast of characters valiantly struggling against their individual demons. It’s a painfully believable set up that O’Farrell depicts with real sensibility and appreciation.

DistanceI wish I had enjoyed The Distance Between Us as much. It had a very promising start with an episode in which a film assistant Jake Kildoune is caught up in a crowd stampede during Chinese New Year celebrations in Hong Kong. Across the other side of the world a worker at a London radio station is returning home when she sees a red headed man. For a reason we don’t discover until well into the book, Stella Gilmore is so frightened by this encounter that she abandons everything and disappears to a remote location in Scotland. The lives of these two strangers intersect in Scotland and as they build a relationship, O’Farrell reveals why Stella is in such fear.

The pace of the novel is rather slow and unfortunately Stella and Jake are uninspiring central figures so this novel doesn’t hold the attention to anywhere the same degree as O’Farrell’s other work.  This isn’t a poor novel by any stretch of the imagination, It’s carefully plotted and well written, but it never captured my attention fully. Nothing about it really lingers in my mind.

Two hits, one so-so novel and one miss but my interest in both these authors hasn’t diminished.


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