If the alliteration of the title doesn’t draw you right away towards Irish author Maggie O’Farrell’s most recent work, then perhaps the fact that I Am I Am I Am is O’Farrell’s testimony of the many face-offs she’s had with death throughout her life, will grab your attention. In total, she’s had seventeen of them.
As a fan of Maggie O’Farrell and having read her novels, This Must Be The Place, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and My Lover’s Lover, I was naturally curious to read her long-awaited memoir. I expected a change in tone, perhaps a less graceful and poetic prose than the one O’Farrell is typically known for.
I was wrong.
The description of the first time O’Farrell came close to losing her life resonates loudly in the post-Weinstein era and the #MeToo movement. She was eighteen and working temporarily at a “holistic retreat,” where she performed a wide variety of jobs, restless to step away from an unexciting life back home.
O’Farrell recalls the day when she came close to losing her life in a way nothing short of ominous, a day that began busy and early, tending to guests, clearing breakfast tables, wiping down trays. Attempting to think back about why she made the decision to walk down a different path than the one she usually took on her daily explorations, O’Farrell says:
Why? I forget. Maybe I finished my tasks earlier that day, maybe the guests had been less untidy than usual and I’d got out of the guesthouse before time. Maybe the clear, sun-bright weather had lured me from my usual path.
Whatever the reason she had for straying from her usual routine that day, is not as important as the fact that O’Farrell’s choice puts her and a strange man in the same lonely path, surrounded by vast open landscape and nobody in sight. The first line in the book is nothing short of terrifying, a frightening association that most women know well: “On the path ahead, stepping out from behind a boulder a man appears.”
Nothing that O’Farrell writes next soothes our apprehension that something dreadful will happen:
I realise several things. That I passed him earlier, farther down the glen. We greeted each other, in the amiable yet brief manner of those on a country walk. That, on this remote stretch of path, there is no one near enough to hear me call. That he has been waiting for me: he has planned the whole thing carefully, meticulously, and I have walked into his trap.
O’Farrell did not die that day, which by no means signifies that she escaped unscathed. From that moment on, she describes sixteen other experiences that drew her close to death. A difficult labor followed by an almost fatal emergency C-Section, a near-drowning, a plane ride to Hong Kong gone horribly wrong, severe encephalitis when she was a child that left her with neurological damage which she still suffers to this day, a miscarriage, and almost being hit by a car. O’Farrell’s near death experiences certainly outnumber mine or those of anyone I know.
The chapters of O’Farrell’s memoir are named after parts of the human body, accompanied by simple clinical illustrations. Chapters such as “Neck”, “Whole Body”, “Lungs”, “Cerebellum” and “Bloodstream” are evidently related to a grave affectation of the named organ or limb. The only exception to this, is the last chapter titled “Daughter”, with a rightful illustration of the human heart, tying everything together in a memory of near tragedy but also of incredible blessings.
As we burrow through O’Farrell’s recollections of her near-fatal encounters, we can’t help but notice that her narrative is as poignant and powerful as it is in her novels. It isn’t easy to recount such impacting events in a way that resembles something like lyrical prose, but somehow O’Farrell manages to do just that. In describing her everyday struggle to keep her daughter (affected by severe allergies and a critical case of eczema) safe, she plucks at reader’s heartstrings with an impassioned affirmation:
You will want nothing more for your child, for all your children, than for them to live their lives unencumbered by worry, by discomfort, by the judgement of others. You will go to bed at night and breathe into the dark and think, one more day. I kept her alive for one more day.
I Am I Am I Am starts as a testimony of Maggie O’Farrell brushes with death, this is true. But it ends up being so much more than a recount of near fatalities. It is a recollection of everything that is life, all that shapes us, the good, the bad, the tragedies, and fortunes. O’Farrell reminds us that remembering how to live fully is so much more important than remembering how we almost ceased to exist.