I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O’Farrell is a collection of interconnected personal essays—described by O’Farrell as an attempt to “write a life, told only through near-death experiences.” Write a life she does. Each chapter, titled with a body part related to a cause of near-death, weaves together different moments in O’Farrell’s life that shaped her into the person she has become.
While the chapters are not chronologically ordered, they progress the narrative of O’Farrell’s life in such a way that we get to know O’Farrell in all her many facets and fazes. O’Farrell’s decision to build the arc of the novel through themes and the organic interweaving of memory, rather than a straight and steady march from childhood to adulthood, reflects the way that we shape our own narratives: we don’t always tell the story from the beginning, or detail the mundane. We often connect our memories through some shared motif or pattern, or the presence of people who are part of our lives.
O’Farrell contemplates her own changing identity with humility, grace, and amusement, and she offers much hard-won wisdom without feeling didactic. Throughout the novel, O’Farrell uses tense as a tool to manipulate the reader’s proximity to a given scene. Often, her use of present tense creates a sense of tension and danger, while her use of past tense creates a sense of space that allows O’Farrell to reflect and comment on her actions.
As a 23-year-old who is struggling to find her own way in the world, I especially appreciated the chapters covering O’Farrell’s early 20s.
In the chapter titled “Whole Body (1993),” O’Farrell, ever the wandering risk-taker, moves to China at 21 years old after having failed the exams necessary to pursue her PhD. She describes this devastating loss, which feels “as if something crucial to [her] very existence—a heart, a lung, an artery—has been snatched away from [her],” but then later points out that “the things in life which don’t go to plan are usually more important, more formative…than the things that do.” O’Farrell captures the huge and scary question mark that is young adulthood without exaggerating or romanticizing her struggles.
Just as heart-wrenching are the near-death experiences covered in O’Farrell’s childhood and the decades that follow her 20s. The account of giving birth to her first child was the first chapter that wrenched tears out of me, both at the horror of that violent, near-loss of mother and child, and the sheer miracle that they both survived.
It’s within the last two chapters of the book that O’Farrell really hits at the core of this book—what inspired her to write it, and what shaped her into the sort of person who faced so many near-death experiences. Throughout the story, O’Farrell makes light mentions of her chronic health challenges. As a child, she contracted a life-threatening case of viral encephalitis, and had to be wheel-chair bound after months of hospitalization, at-home care, and physical therapy.
As a result of this early brush with death, she views the rest of her time on earth as a bonus: She survived when she should have died, she regained the ability to walk independently, and so she was going to live her life on the brink, without fear of death. This is a powerful recurring theme throughout the book: how one’s proximity to death makes life all the more vivid, precious, and miraculous. It makes for a powerful second-to-last chapter that demands the reader to confront questions of access, ability, and how we behave around others who face chronic health challenges.
The final chapter, titled “Daughter (The present day),” reveals that O’Farrell wrote this book for her daughter, who suffers from life-threatening allergies. This chapter is deeply affecting, and it asks big, difficult questions that no parent wants to have to face. Ultimately, it’s O’Farrell’s unshakable love for her daughter that allows her to move mountains and do the impossible every day to ensure that she’s safe in an unpredictable world.
O’Farrell’s choice to write about these subjects at the end of her novel forces the reader to consider every version of herself that O’Farrell has, at this point in the novel, presented to the reader. The reader must let each of these identities sit together—teenager, young woman, mother, child, friend, writer—all of them weighed equally, without adding to or subtracting from O’Farrell’s personhood. Good autobiographical nonfiction like this has the power to challenge readers to consider how multifaceted and sometimes contradictory humans can be.
Also, I’d be doing this book a major injustice if I didn’t mention that O’Farrell’s writing style kicks ass. Her use of language, somehow both precise and poetic—with imagery that is almost cinematic in moments—absolutely blew me out of the water at times.
I will end on one of my favorite scenes in the memoir, which illustrates a quiet yet charged moment from the time O’Farrell lived in China:
“And, one night, in the monsoon season, when the rain is a constant, lulling hum outside the windows, when our clothes, the windows, the pictures are growing mould in the humidity and it’s too hot to sleep, when I have been reading subversive versions of European folktales, I get the urge to put down some words. I get up, find a pencil, open an exercise book at the table and, as Anton sleeps, I start to write.”
Writer, reviewer, bookseller, book nerd extraordinaire. Fiction reader at Waxwing Magazine.