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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Hodgson

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O'Farrell

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

This month, my work’s book club picked I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O ’Farrell as the monthly read. I almost didn’t read it as I don’t tend to read a lot of non-fiction and read memoirs even less frequently. I haven’t been to the book club meetings in some time actually as I used to always get the books from the library which I haven’t been able to do of late. My friend Amy

has recently joined the book club, however, and had read this one in preparation. She encouraged me to pick it up and, wow, am I glad I did.

First, let me assure you that you’ve never read a memoir like this one. We explore Maggie’s life story through the lens of a patchwork of seventeen different moments she came close to losing her life, to one degree or another. When I picked it up, I wondered if this approach would be nothing more than a surface gimmick, or maybe even a tongue-in-cheek look at life. It was neither. Instead, I Am, I Am, I Am is a raw, beautiful and gorgeously written account of moments that make you stop and marvel at the fragility of life.

Some of these brushes with death are a little closer than others; a childhood illness no one expected her to survive but left her with lifelong complications is just one example. Others are those moments when you stop afterwards and think ‘gosh that was close’: a car getting too close to you as you stand by the kerb or a miscalculated swim out in open water. These are the moments we all may feel more familiar with and be able to recognise our own brushes with death in similar circumstances. Some chapters however are, thankfully, less familiar: the first chapter is a shocking encounter with someone who very well may have intended to murder her if things had been different.

This is also an intensely emotive read and some of Maggie’s reflections are on deeply private and personal moments. There is one chapter in particular which is especially poignant as she reflects on her experiences with infertility and miscarriage. Some of her revelations here make you feel like you are trespassing in someone else’s most intensely painful memories.

Whilst I did enjoy reading some chapters more than others, Maggie’s skills as a storyteller are undeniable here. I have Hamnet sitting upstairs in my TBR pile, and I am looking forward to reading some of her fiction after this. Her use of language is considered and evocative, and I can’t wait to see how she uses that in her other works.

In one chapter, she writes how there are certain things that don’t faze her after some of her experiences:

‘You will not be fazed…by vomit, by grazed knees, by splinters…by A and E visits for stitches and sprains and concussion, by crayon on newly painted walls, by rain coming through the roof of your house, by a learner driver wrecking the car. This stuff is small; life is large’.

Reading and reflecting on those words against the backdrop of a pandemic has been a particularly emotive experience. Over the last year, the fragile yet miraculous nature of life has been brought into focus more acutely for so many of us and I’m not sure I could have ever read this memoir at a more fitting moment in time. This foray into the world of memoirs and non-fiction has definitely been a worthwhile one and I will definitely try and push out of my reading comfort zone a little more in future. Please do let me know your recommendations in the comments!


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