Have you ever had a near death experience? I don’t mean being conked on the head by a coconut and imagining walking towards a bright light, but rather having a brush with death, like being pulled back after stepping in front of a car, or surviving a touch-and-go illness, or almost being knocked off the side of a mountain by a spooked horse (that’s my one). Novelist Maggie O’Farrell has had seventeen, and has written about them in her own inimitable style in her memoir I Am, I Am, I Am.
Halfway through the compendium of stories O’Farrell is sitting in her mother’s kitchen, abstaining from tea. Her mother asks her what she’s working on at the moment, and she says she’s “trying to write a life, only told through near-death experiences”. It is of course her own life story she’s telling, each chapter being told out of chronological order and given titles in accordance to the body part affected and the time of each occurrence, such as “Abdomen, 2003” and “Cerebellum, 1980”. Each story offers a glimpse of her life, her personality, the affect these incidents have had on her and her life, her personality, and it’s with an almost cool detachment that gives way to a sense of panic and fear, or obliviousness-until-later that makes the telling so effective.
The incidents range from highly improbable or unlucky, to careless, to all-too common occurrences. It begins with a teenage O’Farrell in 1990, fresh out of school and working away from home for the first time, the first giddy touch of independence. She’s working in a retreat by a mountain, where people come to get away from it all while at the same time to seek enlightenment. She does the fetching and carrying, bed-clothes changing, breakfasts and all that, and has enough free time to enjoy it. Out on a mountain walk one evening she encounters a man wearing binoculars, going the opposite direction, gives the requisite smile and nod and continues on. When she encounters him again not long afterwards her instincts tell her to be cautious, be aware. And right they are.
Further on she is struck down with dysentery. As an (energetic, curious) child she is almost knocked down by a car. On a trip to central America with her now husband she is held at knife point. The events that tended to get to me most though were the ones that she experienced alone, with no one to share them with. A terrifying near drowning in the sea results in an exhausted O’Farrell re-joining her companion, who has been none the wiser to her almost-fate. He notices the scrapes she endured from the bottom of the sea bed when a rip-tide forced her down; “‘My God’ he says, ‘What happened to you?’ ‘The sea’ I say, inarticulate, flopping down on to the ground. ‘A wave.’ ‘Are you OK?’ ‘Yeah.’ I lift a corner of the towel to dab away the blood. ‘I’m fine.’”
I’m fine. If there’s any understatement most people can relate to it’s that one. O’Farrell puts in to perspective, often somewhat uncomfortably, they tenuous grip we have on life. Mindlessly bending down to grip a dog’s collar in approaching traffic can result in a miss, or a near miss, with the under-carriage of a lorry. The anticipation of a deadly virus after a boyfriend confesses to cheating. The not-at-all simple act of carrying a baby. Thinking about it, you may have had many more brushes with death than you gave credit to; but isn’t that just life?
O’Farrell’s style is stark at times, and almost disengaged. She’s writing about herself, but early versions of herself, as a child, a teenager, a young woman in London learning how to forge her own path. At one point she imagines seeing herself in her twenties, with the various follies and joys of youth in her wake, and this self-awareness, this utter knowledge of the ‘character’ is ridiculously engaging. As the book goes in it’s clear why a non-chronological form has been chosen; a life is the sum of many parts, and many of them fail to make sense in the narrative until their stories are closed and completed years later.
The structure is deeply affecting, the stories profoundly told. This isn’t one to dip in and out of, you’ll want to keep reading to complete the whole. Moving, amusing and unnerving, this is a memoir that will leave you in no doubt of the writer’s grit and determination, but will have you questioning your own.
- First published in The Tuam Herald on Wednesday, January 31st 2018