Tuesday 20 March 2018

Intimate collection of snapshots from extraordinary life

Memoir: I Am, I Am, I Am: ­Seventeen Brushes with Death, Maggie ­O'Farrell, Tinder Press, hdbk, 304 pages, €22.49

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

Tanya Sweeney

On the face of it, 17 brushes with death seems quite an unfortunate lot in life for a 44-year-old, but as Maggie O'Farrell attests, death can brush past people often. "A van too close to your bicycle, the tired medic who realises that a dosage ought to be checked one final time, the aeroplane not caught, the virus never inhaled, the assailant never encountered, the path not taken." And here, O'Farrell lays bare a life of travel, motherhood, childbirth, relationships and creativity, each memory with a moment of peril at its pivot.

Growing up by the sea and especially fond of adventure travel, O'Farrell has had a long relationship with the water. It has become modish of late for writers like Alexandra Heminsley and Ruth Fitzmaurice to write of their spiritual affinity with sea swimming; its myriad benefits and blessings.

In O'Farrell's hands, the sea becomes a malevolent monster; she is aware of its devastating power, yet hears its siren song again and again. "The water is green, marbled with white," she writes. "It flexes beneath me, warm and supple. It snatches and grumbles over pebbles nearer the beach." Brushes with death may be ugly and unpleasant, but O'Farrell's way with words is so dextrous that they have rarely sounded this beautiful.

O'Farrell was also a sick child, confined to a wheelchair and missed a year of school due to a viral infection (something she wrote about in 2004's The Distance Between Us). There are hospital stays, doctors and tests galore, and in one particularly breathtaking instance, a visit from a famous TV presenter, clad in gold chains and a tracksuit. He is keen to be alone with the writer, then aged eight. Despite his protestations, a nurse refuses to leave the room, and to leave the child on her own. And, as is the nature of near-death experiences, I Am, I Am, I Am is visceral, tense and hugely dramatic. Most of the chapters - 'Neck', 'Abdomen', 'Lungs', 'Cranium' - corresponds to the body part that once found itself in grave danger. In 'Neck (1990)', O'Farrell encounters a suspicious looking birdwatcher deep in the Scottish Highlands. 'Lungs (2000)', meanwhile, finds the writer too far out at sea on a holiday, her son strapped to her back and seemingly oblivious to how close to death this swim could potentially be. And in 'Daughter (The Present Day)', O'Farrell writes about the brush with death of someone else: her daughter, who has a severe immunology disorder.

Here, O'Farrell meditates on caring for her and how her illness has affected their relationship. "I've asked myself, when she has been very ill, how do you carry on when death is a daily possibility?"

She opens the chapter as only she knows how: "We are racing in a car through lush and verdant countryside, the roads hair-pinning around field boundaries, when I realise my daughter's life is in danger." With seven best-selling novels to her name, Northern Ireland-born O'Farrell knows how to pull a reader right into the action within moments.

O'Farrell has always paid exquisite attention to detail in her writing, turning the everyday into the mystical. She had previously written with impressive authority and authenticity about living with a child with severe eczema (in This Must Be The Place) and the topsy-turvy experience of new motherhood (in The Hand That First Held Mine). And in some ways, now we know how.

I Am, I Am, I Am reads, for all intents and purposes, like a succession of absorbing short stories. Some are weaved with exoticism, others familial tenderness. Many have a moment that leaves the reader breathless with suspense.

O'Farrell doesn't curry sympathy or wallow in self-pity. The blushes of family, friends and former lovers are spared (including those of a lover that she can never be with). But it's an intimate collection of snapshots from an extraordinary life. O'Farrell is a survivor in ways big and small, making this one of the most life-affirming reads of the summer.

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