Book review of “I am, I am, I am: Seventeen Brushes with Death” by Maggie O’Farrell
Goodreads calls this book a “memoire with a difference – the unputdownable story of an extraordinary woman’s life in near-death experiences.” They also say it is “Shocking, electric, unforgettable,” and comment that “It is a book to make you question yourself. What would you do if your life was in danger, and what would you stand to lose?” Well, I couldn’t agree more with this summary, but to be honest, I think it is even more than that.
My regular readers will know that I don’t usually read non-fiction, but this is Maggie O’Farrell, and well, I’ve been in love with her writing for years. Plus, the title indicated that this wasn’t an autobiography so much as a collection of experiences, which is far more to my taste. That is why the opportunity to get a glimpse into her life, even if it isn’t about the lighter side of her world, was irresistible to me, despite my worry that this might be heavy going. Thankfully, even though some (if not all) of these experiences were obviously traumatic in one way or another, somehow O’Farrell was able to portray them in a way that stuns us, yet never repulses us.
However, don’t let this make you think this book is like the proverbial “train wreck” or “car crash;” one that you know is going to be morbid or gory but you can’t seem to tear yourself away, even if it feels like you should. This is because O’Farrell deftly side-steps anything that borders on the grisly through her writing style, which is so graceful, so lyrically poetic that even the most difficult scenes become a platform for her thoughtful, and deep sensitivity combined with her own an elevated sense of self-understanding. After writing that, it occurred to me that O’Farrell might disagree with that last part and argue that exact opposite is true. However, I can assure you it was highly evident to me, as if writing these stories was her way of writing a real-life coming-of-age story.
What also struck me about this book was the artistry of how O’Farrell put all these stories together. These vignettes aren’t in chronological order, but rather in what feels like level of severity of the closeness of death. For example, in the first story, O’Farrell’s brush with death only becomes evident in hindsight, days after the incident occurred. Each subsequent story describes a situation where the nearness of the various dangers gets increasingly closer to ending O’Farrell’s life. The last story, however, takes a slightly different approach, and the life that was in danger described there, isn’t her own (I won’t say more, to avoid spoilers). If it sounds like an oxymoron that a review of a non-fiction memoir has spoilers, I can assure you that in this case, it certainly could!
Finally, I have to say that there was also no small amount of creativity with the construction of the stories themselves. O’Farrell allows herself to flit between the incident in question and pieces from things that happened both prior to and long after the events, including present day observations and interpretations of the situations that O’Farrell could only make after having time for reflection. Add to this O’Farrell’s obviously deep emotional connections to all these stories, which bring forth a wellspring of prose that is at turns elegiac, whimsical, heartbreaking and uplifting, but never morbid or maudlin, and you have a true masterpiece. I cannot praise this book enough, and I would recommend this book to anyone who has the need for some honest inspiration in their lives (and these days, who doesn’t), so I’m giving it a full five stars.
Tinder Press first released “I am, I am, I am: Seventeen Brushes with Death” by Maggie O’Farrell on August 22, 2017. This book is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Kobo Books, Kobo audio books, eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you.
My reviews of Maggie O’Farrell’s novels can be found here:
After You’d Gone
My Lover’s Lover
The Distance Between Us
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
The Hand that First Held Mine
Instructions for a Heatwave
This Must be the Place