I AM, I AM, I AM: SEVENTEEN BRUSHES WITH DEATH by Maggie O’Farrell
Knopf, February 6, 2018
I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir, told in seventeen chapters, each a different vignette about an isolated event in her life which could have resulted in her death. Each chapter is titled with a different body part: Neck, Cerebellum, Lungs, etc., each chapter heading illustrated with a simple but brilliant anatomical drawing that corresponds with the narrative.
The brushes with death themselves range in severity. They cover everything from O’Farrell getting tested for the HIV virus, a fairly common procedure, to having a machete held to her neck on a South American vacation. They also range in emotional poignancy for the reader. For me, nothing else was able to capture the undiluted fear and horror of the very first anecdote, the first chapter entitled Neck – I’m torn between thinking it was a brilliant opening and wondering whether O’Farrell should have saved her best story for later. But I’m sure individual reactions to each chapter will vary. One thing O’Farrell really succeeds at is reminding the reader just how common near-death experiences are, how maybe you’ve come closer than you realize in your own life. I’m sure anecdotes that some readers will find particularly frightening will leave others cold – it really all depends on our own experiences and perceptions.
This narrative isn’t linear – for example, in one chapter O’Farrell will be 25, and in the next she’ll be 8. I loved the unpredictability that this lent the book’s composition. It’s clear from the very fact that this is a memoir that O’Farrell survived each event, but I still thought she did an excellent job keeping the tension high throughout. And then there’s the prose itself, which is gorgeous and lyrical. I’ve actually never read any of O’Farrell’s fiction, but I’m very interested after reading this.
There are a couple of things holding me back from giving this the full 5 stars, however. Seventeen is a lot of brushes with death, and some of these anecdotes begin to feel redundant. Horrifying as each experience must have been, did we really need three separate chapters about almost drowning?
I also felt like there was more description than interpretation to this memoir. Again, I adored O’Farrell’s writing, and she captured each of these events from her life vividly and beautifully. But besides the obvious – each chapter describing a near-death experience – there wasn’t a whole lot of thematic cohesion to this collection. At times I finished a chapter wondering what exactly O’Farrell had been trying to say with it. Not that I wanted a clear-cut moral necessarily, just a bit more insight. Certain chapters felt like an essay that was missing a conclusion.
That said, I mostly found this collection intelligent, well-written, and thought-provoking, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.
Thank you to Penguin First to Read, Knopf, and Maggie O’Farrell for an advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.