I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death
by Maggie O’Farrell
A childhood illness she was not expected to survive. A teenage yearning to escape that nearly ended in disaster. A terrifying encounter on a remote path. A mismanaged labour in an understaffed hospital.
This is a memoir with a difference: seventeen encounters with Maggie at different ages, in different locations, reveal to us a whole life in a series of tense, visceral snapshots. It is a book to make you question yourself: what would you do if your life was in danger? How would you react? And what would you stand to lose? I AM, I AM, I AM is a book you will finish newly conscious of your own vulnerability, and determined to make every heartbeat count.
“I Am, I Am, I Am” seems to be everywhere at the moment so I thought I’d give it a go myself. I’d read one of Maggie O’Farrell‘s novels before and was intrigued by the promise of a beautifully written memoir.
“I Am, I Am, I Am” is a collection of stories, revealing some of O’Farrell’s most personal experiences, when her life or health have been most in danger.
“If, as a child, you are struck or hit, you will never forget that sense of your own powerlessness and vulnerability, of how a situation can turn from benign to brutal in the blink of an eye, in the space of a breath. ”
As human beings we are vulnerable to so many things and reading about an experience where a life was a risk can be chilling. A lot of the phrases chosen by the author are there to make you think and to analyse the brushes with death that you may have had yourself and not really ever thought about.
“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.”
I did enjoy the majority of these stories, but I can’t say that I loved the overall collection. After being gripped for the first few chapters, my interest dropped as the book continues in the same format and on the same theme throughout. Seventeen is an awful lot of brushes with death for one person to have and they’re not all as serious as it might seem. This meant that for me, some of the stories felt redundant, unnecessary or even a little exaggerated.
I wonder if my reading experience would have been better had I read one or two chapters a day, rather than powering through them like I usually would do with a novel. I think that ordering the chapters chronologically (and writing in one tense) would have helped too.
The most moving and memorable piece for me was the chapter explaining O’Farrell’s hospitalisation aged 7 (Cerebellum 1980) when a childhood case of viral encephalitis left her unable to walk and move. This chapter was well written and moving and could probably could have filled a book on it’s own. And you know what? Having finished this book, I feel grateful that my own life hasn’t been so eventful and lucky that the doctors I have encountered have been far more kind-hearted and professional than the ones poor Maggie has come across!
Overall rating: Maggie O’Farrell has bravely allowed us all to see a snapshot of her life, but rather than show us the best parts, she’s shown us the times when things could have easily ended differently – her near death experiences. I liked this collection but I wasn’t amazed by it and lost interest somewhere in the middle. It’s 3 stars for this brave and thought-provoking memoir.
See my other reviews of books by Maggie O’Farrell here: