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

This is not your average memoir. With stark self-awareness and insight, novelist Maggie O’Farrell throws us into the middle of her life through 17 essays about life-threatening and often harrowing events that define how she became who she is. She lightly weaves her biography throughout, giving us enough of a glimpse of her personal trajectory to understand as much as we need to know about how she got from point A to point B and why. But the book is primarily a sensory exploration of how it feels to be Maggie O’Farrell.

Much of what happens in O’Farrell’s life stems from a case of encephalitis when she was eight, the effects of which she shows throughout the book. But she waits until the penultimate chapter to explain the disease, trusting her reader to stay with her. She shows before she tells. It’s risky, but it works.

Because of encephalitis, her brain can’t accurately place her in her environment, so she often fights for physical balance, her muscles cannot provide enough strength for childbirth, she can stutter at book readings, and simply walking up to the stage at an event is a feat in itself.  

Her life sometimes defies belief, and she seems to take questionable risks, but she says being so ill so young changed her and made her embrace life with a passion few possess:

I am desperate for change, endlessly seeking novelty, wherever I can find it. When you’re a child, no one tells you that you are going to die. You have to work it out for yourself.

She has survived assaults that could have killed her—one of her attackers murdered another young woman shortly after he put his camera strap menacingly around O’Farrell’s throat. O’Farrell outwitted him by doing what she does with remarkable power: using her words.

Other brushes with death include three near-drownings, two more assaults, a child with deadly allergies, and multiple “missed miscarriages” in which the baby dies, but the mother has no symptoms of the loss. All this both forms and is a result of a personality that embraces risk, requires change, and is deeply introspective. In a relatively short book, O’Farrell shows how she was molded into a woman, a mother, and a writer of courage and intensity.

— Pat Prijatel

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