I very much enjoy Maggie O’Farrell’s fiction, and when I found out about her first foray into biography, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death, I wanted to read it immediately. The book, which reflects upon seventeen times in which O’Farrell’s life was in danger, or appeared to be, has been split into seventeen distinct sections. These give a brief biological positioning of the problem which follows, as well as the year of their occurrence; for instance, ‘Circulatory System (1991)’, ‘Baby and Bloodstream (2005)’, and ‘Whole Body (1993)’. The book has been named after one of my favourite Sylvia Plath poems, which feels highly appropriate given the subject matter: ‘I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.’
In the first section of I Am, I Am, I Am, O’Farrell writes: ‘I could have said that I have an instinct for the onset of violence. That, for a long time, I seemed to incite it in others for reasons I never quite understood. If, as a child, you are struck or hit, you will never forget that sense of your own powerlessness and vulnerability, of how a situation can turn from benign to brutal in the blink of an eye, in the space of a breath. That sensibility will run in your veins, like an antibody.’ In the chapters which follow, O’Farrell is consistently honest and very direct about her own experiences, detailing the quick thinking which has helped her to get out of terrible situations, as well as the recklessness which consumed her as a child and teenager, and led her into trouble.
Of course, the situations recounted here have differing degrees of seriousness; some have repercussions which express themselves upon O’Farrell’s interior world, rather than upon her physical body. The content too is varied; she discusses, amongst other things, a car accident, a traumatic birth, and being held by the throat with a machete whilst on holiday in Chile. The structure suits I Am, I Am, I Am incredibly well, as does their ordering into a random rather than a chronological timeline. Each of the chapters is separate but interlinked.
O’Farrell has such an awareness of her own place in the world, and the sometimes slippery grip which we have on our lives. She extends her own opinion of this to include the reader, making it feel like an incredibly personal account for us, too: ‘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 we may fall.’
I Am, I Am, I Am is, like O’Farrell’s fiction, measured, intelligent, and surprising. Whilst its tone and approach makes it immersive and very easy to read, it is also extremely touching and thought-provoking throughout. I feel as though I now have an awareness and understanding, and above all, such admiration of O’Farrell the person, rather than O’Farrell the author. I Am, I Am, I Am is a beautifully, and often scarily, personal account of danger and the fragility of life, which never once resorts to melodrama or exaggeration; instead, it is life-affirming in the most beautiful and direct of ways. I had high hopes for O’Farrell’s newest tome, and it proved to be even better than I was expecting. I Am, I Am, I Am is a wonderful book, which I will be thinking about for years to come.