25. ‘I Am, I Am, I Am’ by Maggie O’Farrell

I read Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am in one day – in fact, almost in one sitting. It’s an astonishing book. Buckle in, ‘cos I’m gonna rave.

i am, i am, i am maggie o'farrell

The full title of this book is I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, and in it Maggie O’Farrell relates the story of her life through her near-misses with death. If that sounds like a brilliant concept, it definitely is, and O’Farrell’s writing more than lives up to it. The title comes from this quote from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar:

I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.

The first encounter we read about happened when O’Farrell was eighteen, working in a hotel in Scotland. In the account she goes out for a walk, alone, by a lake in the mountains and meets a man there who acts very strangely. She is terrified, but when she tries to tell the police about him later they don’t do anything about it because he did not hurt or attack her. Not long after that the police knock on her door – they want to know about the man she reported because he has just murdered someone, a young woman who was out walking, alone, by the lake.

Obviously this is an incredible opening to the book, and my heart was pounding from the first page, and the line “This day – a day on which I nearly die – starts early for me.” The tension never really eases off for the whole book, and that’s why it’s so easy to read in one go – the writing flows beautifully, and O’Farrell’s stories pull you through. Each chapter is named after a body part (the body part that nearly led to her death), and they’re short enough that you think Oh, just one more, over and over again, until you find yourself at the end. Some of the brushes with death are extremely serious, some less so – more like ‘what if’ moments – but they’re all made vivid and frightening by O’Farrell’s deft hand. As for the final chapter, it brings everything together in an unexpected and beautiful way.

Through it all there is the character of Maggie herself. She describes herself as a child – headstrong and rebellious – and shows how these attributes affected her adult life. The stories are told out of order, but this is never confusing because Maggie is there all the way through, sometimes younger, sometimes older and wiser, but always stubborn and determined and compelling. It’s a joy to follow her, to see how well she understands herself, and to experience how – in the face of numerous encounters with death – she always seems resolved to it. Perhaps it’s because she has nearly died so many times, or perhaps it is simply part of her character (apparently, she first acutely understood her own mortality aged five), but there’s something powerful about reading a book about death written by someone who accepts the inevitability of it and is not afraid to talk about it.

Motherhood is a significant part of I Am, I Am, I Am. More than one of O’Farrell’s encounters with death have involved pregnancy or childbirth, and those chapters really highlight the emotional dangers people put themselves through when they have children, and the very real physical dangers involved for pregnant women. The chapter ‘Abdomen (2003)’ is one of my favourites in the book – it made me angry, it made me frightened, it nearly made me cry. Maggie O’Farrell knows how to make her readers feel.

I really can’t recommend this book enough. It’s moving and funny and frightening, and it will leave you with a clearer sense of your own mortality, but in the best possible way. It’s one of my favourite books I’ve read this year, and I’ve been recommending it to everyone. In fact, I saw my family not long after reading this, and we played a game of ‘How many times have you nearly died?’ Not for the fainthearted, sure, but extremely interesting nonetheless. My brushes with death include a childhood illness that would have killed me if modern medicine did not exist, a millimetre-miss with a motorbike, and some very large Cornish waves.

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.

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!

If you want to read it, you can buy I Am, I Am, I Am here.

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