Book Review: I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell

 
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I AM, I AM, I AM

by Maggie O'Farrell

 

GOODREADS     TINDER PRESS

 

Before this memoir, Maggie O’Farrell was already an established name in the fiction world, with numerous awards for her novels, so when I Am, I Am, I Am was announced it was sure to find its way into the spotlight. As her first non-fiction book, it manages to both provide something new in terms of narrative and reward with the level of prose that made her successful in the first place.

The subtitle of this memoir, Seventeen Brushes with Death, serves to amplify its appeal, but is also the sort of narrative device that provides the reader with more than they’d expect. Each chapter of the book takes its title from the part of the body that harbours the life-threatening danger: “Neck”, “Lungs”, “Abdomen”, with the final two being “Cerebellum” and “Daughter”. I could try to explain what’s the effect you get from the book as a whole, but Maggie has provided a pretty accurate description herself. In the chapter “Head” she tells her mother about writing this book:

I tell her I’m trying to write a life, told only through near-death experiences. [...] It’s not … it’s just … snatches of a life. A string of moments.
— Maggie O'Farrell, I Am I Am I Am (p. 142-3)

The idea of “writing a life” is markedly different and separate from writing a memoir – everything here is more distilled, more in focus, and in some ways, it demands more from the reader. Writing a life as opposed to telling a story, requires interaction, even if the book you’re holding is finished and won’t change. The memoir is typically born out of a need to tell a story (even though the genre is regrettably heavy with titles that don’t need to exist, but still do as an exercise in self-importance, which is why it’s often hard to find the good ones), a story which the writer needs to write in order to understand it – to understand something about their life. Typically again, this story is comprised of interesting or funny events that form their life, with some insight added at the end of each bit. What you get with Maggie O’Farrell si concentrated moments of extraordinary depth and impact; they inform her life while carrying the threat of ending it. They are not collected chronologically, so you have to fill in some of the gaps yourself – another departure from the memoir formula that presents an easily digestible narrative with a beginning and and ending.

Her approach works on several levels, but the most potent one you get to the penultimate chapter, “Cerebellum (1980).” Throughout the book she mentions having gone through a very serious illness in her early childhood, but since most stories feature an adult Maggie O’Farrell, the seriousness of the illness seems to be implicitly downplayed. Until you read this chapter, that is. It’s one of the longest chapters in the book, and it’s such a gut-wrenching crescendo, going through several incidents in hospital, and ending with a bit of overheard dialogue that is perhaps the most harrowing bit in the book (no spoilers, just a tease).

At the end of the chapter you are allowed a brief gulp of air before being plunged back into the fury of this still-rising crescendo that continues into the last chapter. This time the chronology is given is “The Present Day,” where Maggie’s daughter is the one whose life is in danger. She has suffered an allergic reaction while they’re on a family vacation in a remote farm somewhere in central Italy. Reading about Maggie’s own brushes with death suddenly seems like nothing compared to a mother’s agony as her daughter’s throat closes up. They’re rushing on a country road in a foreign country, with no signal and no idea about the location of the nearest hospital. The tension is amplified by the uncertainty of the outcome; here you are denied the security of a “happy ending” that the narrator provides simply by being the one telling the story years afterwards.

I Am, I Am, I Am is so much more than a memoir, simply by its innovative structure and what it sets out to achieve. If every piece of self-writing is a form of reflection, then a string of pieces about near-death experiences has a strong claim at being the purest form of this process. Add to the equation a veteran writer who can truly do justice to this form, and you get a masterpiece. The last chapter – which may feel a bit like the odd one out – is the perfect emotional and psychological epilogue; it’s not just a momentous testament to motherhood, but also a painfully raw and loud affirmation of life, echoes of which can be heard throughout the book. Its title is truly earned.

I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.
— Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

 
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PLATON POULAS

Successfully impersonated a student of English literature for three years, and is now doing a masters in Publishing. Interested in the direction English literature is taking in the 21st century, noir comics, beautifully shot films. Can bore you to death with Hollywood trivia, extensive knowledge of Leonard Cohen, and La La Land.  

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Platon Poulas