About Your Privacy on this Site
Welcome! To bring you the best content on our sites and applications, Meredith partners with third party advertisers to serve digital ads, including personalized digital ads. Those advertisers use tracking technologies to collect information about your activity on our sites and applications and across the Internet and your other apps and devices.
You always have the choice to experience our sites without personalized advertising based on your web browsing activity by visiting the DAA’s Consumer Choice page, the NAI's website, and/or the EU online choices page, from each of your browsers or devices. To avoid personalized advertising based on your mobile app activity, you can install the DAA’s AppChoices app here. You can find much more information about your privacy choices in our privacy policy. Even if you choose not to have your activity tracked by third parties for advertising services, you will still see non-personalized ads on our sites and applications. By clicking continue below and using our sites or applications, you agree that we and our third party advertisers can:
  • transfer your data to the United States or other countries; and
  • process and share your data so that we and third parties may serve you with personalized ads, subject to your choices as described above and in our privacy policy.
Entertainment Weekly


How Maggie O'Farrell turned 17 near-death experiences into a literary masterwork

Simone Padovani/Getty Images

Posted on

How many times have you almost died? After reading Maggie O’Farrell’s heart-stopping new memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am, you might realize more often than you think.

The award-winning Irish novelist, 45, has compiled an autobiographical essay collection out of her “seventeen brushes with death,” assembling them in nonchronological order and naming each story after a body part in particular peril. (The first chapter is called “Neck: 1990.”) The genius of the book is the way O’Farrell interweaves common incidents — just missing getting hit by a car, surviving a miscarriage — with extraordinary ones. She encounters murderers, battles childhood encephalitis, and contracts amoebic dysentery while in China.

What emerges is a uniquely complete portrait of a life fully lived. “The subtitle mentions death, but for me the book is really about life,” O’Farrell explains. Each essay finds her approaching a milestone, whether it’s the messy freedom of adolescence or the period leading up to new motherhood, and she authentically depicts the emotions behind them by playing with tense and grammar. I Am, I Am, I Am doesn’t follow any rule book. “I don’t believe our personalities or our recollections of things are in a neatly ordered sequence,” the author says. “We’re much more layered and nuanced personalities than that.”


That exact idea is why O’Farrell, who has written seven novels since 2000, initially resisted penning a memoir. She turned to iconic authors’ work, such as Philip Roth’s Patrimony and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, to chart her own path. “They’re saying something personal and universal — and I think in the best memoir, you can extrapolate the ­universal from the personal,” she says. “It’s what I look for in any story.”

I Am, I Am, I am also follows in the more recent tradition of memoirs mining profundity from life-altering experiences, like Ariel Levy’s The Rules Do Not Apply and Maude Julien’s The Only Girl in the World.

O’Farrell’s attitude toward memoir is multifaceted in a way that reflects the genre’s broadening evolution. I Am, I Am, I Am is literary through and through, as its unconventional structure probes deep ­questions about the human condition, and it establishes a narrative that finds meaning and truth in life’s chaos and randomness. She ends the book by painfully revisiting the diagnosis of her young daughter’s immunological disorder, in an effort, she says, to “try and impose an editorial order on this aspect of my life that I had virtually no control over.”

But this is O’Farrell’s life story — tales of personal discomfort and unimaginable trauma that she never thought she’d tell. Further, she never expected her own complicated relationship with life and death to resonate as it has. I Am, I Am, I Am has been out in the U.K. since last year, and readers now regularly tell her the most intimately unsettling things about themselves. “They’ll tell me about their brushes with cancer or violence or car accidents — incredible, gobsmacking stuff,” she says. They can’t help listing their own ­near-death experiences, and indeed, the book forces that sort of reflection from all of its readers: to consider their relationship to death and, by extension, life. It did for O’Farrell, anyway. “I decided to take this one theme and use that as a snapshot,” she says. “To look at a life from start to finish — well, hopefully not finished just yet.”