Claire's Reviews > I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell
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it was amazing
bookshelves: around-the-world, around-the-world-2021, memoir

This memoir told in seventeen stories of the author's brushes with death, each chapter heading an organ of the body and a year, one that doesn't follow a chronological order, but is almost like a jigsaw puzzle, that as we read, begins to reveal something more as each experience is understood.

I thought it was brilliant and I Am as much in awe of how it's been put together, as I Am of the insights she shares as each brush has its impact and adds to her knowledge of the body, mind and her own purpose in being here.

The first encounter is thriller-like and anyone who's ever felt their inner warning system go off when in the presence of a would be predator, will recognise the signs and shake their heads at the response she gets when trying to report the event to the police. Her going over the conversation wondering what else she could have said for there to have been a different outcome.
How could I have articulated to this policeman that I could sense the urge for violence radiating off the man, like heat off a stone?

It occurs to me that we humans perhaps have more lives than cats, these brushes with death can occur without us even realising. It will make you pause and think back to some of those near misses you too might have had. And then others, like the first one she shares are pushed down so deep, never again mentioned, except that one time, when it was necessary to make someone understand and accept a behaviour change.
It is a story difficult to put into words, this. I never tell it, in fact, or never have before. I told no one at the time, not my friends, not my family: there seemed no way to translate what had happened into grammar and syntax.

Some stories/brushes forewarn of another that is still to come in the narrative, so that in this way, there is an invisible thread connecting them, we come to an encounter later in the text, having already been made aware of some of the underlying facts that have formed this life.

A near drowning at sixteen is as much about the inclinations, boredom and despondency of adolescence, as it is about the consequence of having lost a sense of direction underwater.
It is all these things and more that propel me to my feet. At sixteen you can be so restless, so frustrated, so disgusted by everything that surrounds you that you are willing to leap off what is probably a fifteen-metre drop, in the dark, into a turning tide.


A Latin class school trip to Rome and Pompeii at seventeen was a turning point O'Farrell describes as being like receiving a blood transfusion, the assault on all the senses of the sights, sounds, tastes, the contrast to what was familiar so great, it was painful to consider leaving.

It was the beginning of a love affair with travel and gave a focus to her innate restlessness, a way to satisfy it, the only thing besides writing that can meet and relieve it.

She quotes Mark Twain, who after travelling around the Mediterranean said that travel was 'fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness' and tells us that neuroscientists have for years been trying to understand what it is about travel that alters us, effects mental change.
Professor Adam Galinsky, an American social psychologist who has studied the connection between creativity and international travel, says that 'Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms.


One of the most gripping chapters for me was the second to last, CEREBELLUM 1980, when a headache that becomes a significant marker on her life path, a period of hospitalisation and subsequent rehabilitation and re-education as she recovers from encephalitis, a debilitating inflammation of the brain probably caused by a virus resulting in muscular atrophy, a long period of immobility and several ongoing, invisible side-effects.

Apart from the more obvious physical issues, enduring a chronic condition also had a kind of mystical quality. The way she writes of convalescence, where weeks slide by without your participation, ironically, has some resonance with what we are experiencing with lockdowns/confinement.
Fever, pain, medicine, immobility: all these things give you both clarity and also distance, depending on which is riding in the ascendant.


The insight that really stood out though, was the development of ,and her living in a state, of fearlessness.
Coming so close to death as a young child, only to resurface again into your life, imbued in me for a long time a brand of recklessness, a cavalier or even crazed attitude to risk. It could, I can see, have gone the other way, and made me into a person hindered by fear, hobbled by caution. Instead, I leapt off harbour walls. I walked alone in remote mountains. I took night trains through Europe on my own, arriving in capital cities in the middle of the night with nowhere to stay.

These insights were so remarkable and familiar to me, when I reflect on the way my daughter lived her life, that they help me understand something I was so fearful of myself, her fearlessness and familiarity with death, and her artistic conversation with it.
It was not so much that I didn't value my existence but more that I had an insatiable desire to push myself to embrace all that it could offer. Nearly losing my life at the age of eight made me sanguine - perhaps to a fault - about death. I knew it would happen, at some point, and the idea didn't scare me; its proximity felt instead almost familiar. The knowledge that I was lucky to be alive, that it so easily could have been otherwise, skewed my thinking.

Fortunately for us Maggie O'Farrell lived far enough into her life for this thinking to change, the birth of a child is magical in so many ways, her indifference stopped the minute she became a mother. And then even greater challenges would arrive, situations that the life she had lived until then, unwittingly had been preparing her for.

If you are aware of these moments, they will alter you. You can try to forget them, to turn away from them, to shrug them off, but they will have infiltrated you, whether you like it or not.

A work of incredible merit, highly recomended.
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Quotes Claire Liked

Maggie O'Farrell
“We are, all of us, wandering about in a state of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when the axe may fall.”
Maggie O'Farrell, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death

Maggie O'Farrell
“It was not so much that I didn't value my existence but more that I had an insatiable desire to push myself to embrace all that it could offer. Nearly losing my life at the age of eight made me sanguine - perhaps to a fault - about death. I knew it would happen, at some point, and the idea didn't scare me; its proximity felt instead almost familiar. The knowledge that I was lucky to be alive, that it so easily could have been otherwise, skewed my thinking.”
Maggie O'Farrell, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death

Maggie O'Farrell
“Coming so close to death as a young child, only to resurface again into your life, imbued in me for a long time a brand of recklessness, a cavalier or even crazed attitude to risk. It could, I can see, have gone the other way, and made me into a person hindered by fear, hobbled by caution. Instead, I leapt off harbour walls. I walked alone in remote mountains. I took night trains through Europe on my own, arriving in capital cities in the middle of the night with nowhere to stay.”
Maggie O'Farrell, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death


Reading Progress

January 12, 2021 – Started Reading
January 12, 2021 – Shelved
January 12, 2021 – Shelved as: around-the-world
January 12, 2021 – Shelved as: around-the-world-2021
January 12, 2021 – Shelved as: memoir
January 14, 2021 –
11.0% "The scene setting in the opening lines of the 2 sections I've read are so compelling, this no "told" narrative, it's a show and make the reader feel how it was narrative. Both inside the mind and body of a young girl and and of the natural surrounds, oblivious and ominous.
Neck 1990
"On the path ahead, stepping out from behind a boulder, a man appears.""
January 14, 2021 –
27.0% "A 16 year old dare to jump off a harbour wall turns disorienting and dangerous.
Violent turbulence on a flight to Hong Kong after a 3rd year perceived disaster that thwarts ideas of a PhD in marginalized medieval women poets.
Another lakeside walk, this time accompanied, but in Chile, as dark approaches, a machete wielding madman."
January 18, 2021 –
76.0% "A structure to have imposed across a set of memories, recalling 17 brushes with death and the organ they're associated with, some are dramatic, others realised after the risk has passed, one her mother shares, some that don't get a chapter, mentioned in passing.
Each 'brush' is a complete story, vignette, making it a collection with that common thread running through, passing back and forth in time."
January 19, 2021 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by Ilse (new) - added it

Ilse A very fine review of what sounds a fascinating book, Claire.


Claire Ilse wrote: "A very fine review of what sounds a fascinating book, Claire."

Thanks Ilse, it's a totally fascinating memoir, utterly compelling and thought provoking. I wanted to capture as many of the pertinent quotes as I could, allowing them to write the review themselves.


message 3: by Woman Reading (new)

Woman Reading I enjoyed your review from beginning to end, Claire. I was particularly curious about the quotation regarding creativity and international travel. As an avid traveler, I continue to wait for my inner creativity to be set free. 😉


message 4: by Carol (new)

Carol Thanks for sharing your wonderful review, especially these well-chosen quotes, Claire. It's a stunner.


Claire Woman Reading wrote: "I enjoyed your review from beginning to end, Claire. I was particularly curious about the quotation regarding creativity and international travel. As an avid traveler, I continue to wait for my inn..."

It's a thought provoking quote isn't it, if your inner creativity hasn't yet been set free, you can always travel through and be inspired books. I recommend Stories of the Sahara by Sanmao, particularly as she travels to a place so unlike most destinations. ;)


Claire Carol wrote: "Thanks for sharing your wonderful review, especially these well-chosen quotes, Claire. It's a stunner."

Thanks Carol, I highlighted over 100 passages, but these were particularly poignant.


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