Thursday 5 July 2018

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell

What an extraordinary lucky (or unlucky) life Maggie O'Farrell has had. Seventeen brushes with death in one lifetime seems rather excessive, to one who can barely think of one close call!

But seventeen there really are.

Some of the brushes are a little more tenuous than others - more like a sliding door moment that many of us may have had - like if I had left the house ten minutes earlier I might have been in the exact same spot where the car accident happened that I am now driving safely by. That's about as close as I get to a brush with death.

My mum's was a much closer call and more like the stories that O'Farrell relates in her book, with a near-drowning experience as a young child. It gets a little weird if I think about what would have happened if my uncle hadn't been there to save my mum. Who would I be now?

All the way through I Am, I Am, I Am I was wondering why O'Farrell chose to write her vignettes out of chronological order. That is, until I got to her story about a much too close brush with a truck on a narrow lane. She was in a relationship but walking out in a forest discussing a different future with another man, who was also in another relationship. No names, no ages, no specifics to pin down when this happened, to protect the innocent I assume.

There were a couple of near drowning moments, child birth traumas and serious life-threatening illnesses. O'Farrell's sliding doors moments centred around a blood test after she found out her boyfriend had been sleeping around and scary moments in her childhood when her mum nearly closed the boot on her head and she stepped off the kerb into oncoming traffic. Death or serious injury averted thanks to timing, quick thinking on someone else's behalf and good old fashioned luck.

The truly frightening story was the lucky escape from a murderer whilst walking in a quiet touristy unnamed area somewhere in the wilds of England. It reminded me of the vignette in Ian McEwan's Amsterdam that was curiously based on a real experience that McEwan had whilst walking around the Lakes District in his younger years. It made me wonder if they had both run into the same creepy guy.

However, most of the stories were closer to mini-memoirs. In amongst the dangerous moment were revealing facts about O'Farrell's childhood, her early career choices, first boyfriends, her travel anecdotes, her studies, writing and thoughts on motherhood.

One of her final stories details her childhood brush with death via encephalitis. This seems to be the formative story about how and why O'Farrell faces the thought of death and approaches the rest of her life with such a 'sanguine' indifference:
Coming so close to death as a young child, only to resurface again into life, imbued in me for a long time a brand of recklessness, a cavalier or even crazed attitude to risk....I leapt off harbour walls. I walked alone in remote mountains. I took night trains through Europe on my own, arriving in capital cities in the middle of the night with nowhere to stay. I cycled blithely along what is dubbed 'South America's Most Dangerous Road', a vertiginous, crumbling, eroding track cut into a steep peak....I walked across frozen lakes. I swam in dangerous waters.

I've never read any of her fiction titles, but here, I enjoyed her way with words and the pictures she painted with them. They felt genuine and heart-felt. I read one or two stories at a time during my lunch break, which was the perfect way to read them I feel. I suspect if I tried to read this is one go I might have got a little tired of the theme and the fact that some of the brushes were a little more tenuous than others to say the least.

Very enjoyable short stories, one dose at a time.

Book 9 of #20booksofsummer (winter) drop-in title
Sydney 23℃
Northern Ireland 20℃


  1. I liked this collection, it was a nice change of pace from what I had be reading. The hiking story really was creepy.

    1. The hiking story was truly frightening, she had a very lucky escape there.

      I realised, though, as I read the last story about her daughter's severe anaphalxis why she wrote the book - it was to show the world (& perhaps herself and her children) that lots of people have close brushes with death, that our mortality is often close to hand, that we all live with the idea that one day we will die. Some just have it thrown more in their faces than others.

  2. This is an example (I think) of a horror genre I did not think about....'non-fiction horror' !
    Nonfiction books can confront us with a world we cannot control or even predict.
    Near-death experiences... where bad things happen to good people.
    I agree reading these stories one after another can produce too much emotional experiences. The reader needs time to digest them!

  3. Your review makes very clear to me that I don't want to read this book!

    best... mae at

  4. I've never been a very big fan of short stories, but this collection sounds really interesting.

    1. It was an interesting way to write a memoir, with a specific theme to hang all the stories on.


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