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