Reviewed by Harriet
I’ve always admired Maggie O’Farrell’s fiction, and greatly loved her most recent novel, This Must Be the Place, which I reviewed on Shiny last year. I didn’t know much about her personal life, though, so I seized on this recently published autobiographical work hoping to fill in the blanks. Well, let me tell you straight away that if you’re after a straightforward chronology, birth up to the present day, this is not the book for you. The seventeen chapters dart around all over the place: the earliest date, 1975, when Maggie was three, doesn’t pop up till Chapter 10. Does this make it any less fascinating? Decidedly not.
The subtitle of the book is ‘Seventeen Brushes with Death’, and, reading it, you get a cumulative sense of what an extraordinary life O’Farrell has had. Admittedly some of the brushes are less serious than others – almost getting run over by a lorry has probably happened to most of us, and going in trepidation to a clinic to discover if an unfaithful boyfriend has contracted HIV must have happened to quite a few people at the height of the AIDs epidemic. But put these things into the wider picture and a pattern certainly emerges.
The first chapter, ‘Neck’ (each chapter is named after the relevant part of the body) tells a chilling story. Maggie, as a teenager, has a summer job in a ‘holistic alternative retreat’ at a well-known beauty spot. Out one afternoon for a walk, she encounters a man, apparently out bird watching. On the way back she meets him again, and this time, during their conversation, he throws the strap of the binoculars over her head to encircle her throat. Somehow she manages to talk her way out of this frightening situation. She tells the police, who are not very interested. But then, a few weeks later, she hears of a young woman of her own age being found dead, having been raped and then strangled with a binocular strap. Equally terrifying is a moment when a machete is held to her throat by a thief in Chile. Then there’s the journey when the plane suddenly plummets downwards, ‘like the world’s most unpleasant fairground ride, like a dive into nothing, like being pulled by the ankles into the endless maw of the underworld’.
These are external events, but several other of the incidents are those caused by the malfunctioning of her own body. Early on we hear of a near drowning, caused by her own inability to fully coordinate her body or tell what its position is in space. Many chapters go by until, almost at the end, we discover the cause of this: the encephalitis she suffered from as an eight-year-old, which took three years to recover from and which affected her mind and body permanently. There’s a heart-rending moment when she’s lying in a hospital bed and hears a nurse reprimanding a child in the corridor outside for making too much noise: ‘There’s a little girl dying in there’. She starts by feeling sorry for the unknown girl and then realises it’s she herself who the nurse is concerned about. Then there’s the severe hemorrhage during her first experience of childbirth, the shocking miscarriages and stillbirths, the failed IVF treatment – which proves not to have failed after all.
O’Farrell has three children, and her middle daughter is the result of that supposedly failed IVF. The final chapter of the book finally tells her story, and in doing so, reveals the reason why the book was written at all. This little girl not only developed severe eczema as soon as she was born, but proved to have severe allergic reactions to a terrifyingly long list of triggers. At least twelve to fifteen times a year, O’Farrell tells us, she has had to make a mad dash to the hospital for life-saving treatment when the child goes into anaphylactic shock. The family never leaves the house without a medical kit, and massive preparations have to be undertaken when they travel anywhere. So death, which O’Farrell has avoided so many times, is now a lurking presence in her everyday life.
You can’t help feeling for O’Farrell, and indeed for the whole family. But this is not a self-pitying work – far from it. There’s real bravery and optimism here, and some moments of extraordinary clarity of vision. One such happens during yet another terrifying incident, when she is caught in a riptide in the Indian Ocean and seems to be going to be swept out to sea. By great good luck she is caught by a giant wave and brought back to shore, where her oblivious husband sits watching their sleeping baby. She looks at the scene around her, and everything suddenly takes on the most startling visual and auditory clarity, as if she is ‘suddenly missing several layers of skin’. And she remembers other times and places where she’s had the same experience, this first one when she was aged about five, just waiting for her mother outside a shop and suddenly:
something shifted, or settled upon me, some extra depth of vision – a sudden recalibration or bifurcation of my perceptions took place. I could see myself both from above and from within. I had a sense of myself as miniscule, inconsequential, a tiny moving automaton in a wide scene, and at the same time I was acutely aware of myself as an organism, a human microcosm…I acquired a simultanous sense of time as a vast continuum, and an awareness that my stretch in it would be short, insignificant. I knew in that moment, and perhaps for the first time, that I would one day die, that at some point there would be nothing left of me.
This is obviously an experience of great significance, and one which has remained with O’Farrell through her own and her daughter’s frequent brushes with death. This is a remarkable book indeed, fascinating, moving and thought-provoking.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and was almost swept away by the tide in the Indian Ocean earlier this year.
Maggie O’Farrell, I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death (Tinder Press, 2017). 978-1472240743, 304pp., hardback.
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