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Near Death

Book Review [1]
I am, I am, I am: Seventeen brushes with death,
by Maggie O’Farrell (Penguin, $40, Hachette)
Reviewed by Wendy Montrose

i-am_coverI am, I am, I am is a memoir with a difference. Subtitled Seventeen Brushes With Death, it tells the story of Maggie O’Farrell’s life in a series of near-death encounters at different ages: ‘Snatches of a life, a string of moments.’  From a childhood illness O’Farrell wasn’t expected to survive to a life-saving dash with her own dangerously ill child, I am, I am, I am is a collage of some of the experiences that made her who she is.

O’Farrell writes each event as though she is living it now and imbues them with all the feeling she must have relived with every word. How she articulates her pain after a miscarriage, her terror in the face of danger, her teenage dissatisfaction, her maternal distress is so real, so sincere that you feel each event, and recognise them.

‘In moments like these, your thinking shrinks, sharpens, narrows. The world shutters up and you are reduced to a crystalline pinpoint, to a single purpose:’

She has an intellectual turn of phrase, deep thinking, analytical and critical, and is just downright clever.

‘That my guardian angel, glancing down from her cloud and seeing me cycle to my exams, perceived what might happen and let slip a celestial spanner that well and truly jammed my works.’

Its a courageous feat to write such a book. O’Farrell exposes herself, is irreverent, doesn’t hold back. From the opening sentence, I am, I am, I am held me in its spell with its intimacy and candour and more than once jolted to the fore long-buried kindred responses. Tears were shed.

The book is well constructed, though not chronological, and it’s hard to tell if there is a purpose to the order of things — and perhaps there isn’t. It works anyway. The chapter titles and illustrations suggest a series of medical events but there is far more to it than the physical effect of each episode. Don’t be deterred. I am, I am, I am is a thing of beauty.

O’Farrell lives in Edinburgh and is the author of seven novels including The Distance Between Us, winner of a Somerset Maugham Award, and The Hand That Held Mine which won the 2010 Costa Novel Award. She has leapt to the top of my must-read list.