Book Club / I am, I am, I am | Book club

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The TOAST Book Club is published on the last Friday of every month. The reviews are written by Betsy Tobin, author of five novels and joint founder of Ink@84 – an independent bookshop just up the road from our head office, situated in leafy Highbury. Though the book club exists in a purely digital sphere we hope that you will add your own opinions and thoughts below.*

We have all inadvertently danced with death: stepped into traffic without looking, or slipped on a treacherous footpath. Renowned novelist Maggie O’Farrell has done so seventeen times – and has lived to write about it, producing a survivor’s tale like no other. I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is O’Farrell’s first work of non-fiction, a memoir that often reads like a literary thriller.

It is cleverly and viscerally organized, with chapters titled by date and body part (Lung 1998, Abdomen 2003, Intestines 1994.) Each relates an episode when O’Farrell’s life was endangered: often seriously. And like her novels, it is tense, gripping, meticulously rendered, and ultimately, deeply moving.

With this book one has a sense that the author has taken a deep breath and exhaled a lifetime’s worth of adrenaline, anger and fear. There is a cathartic, confessional quality to the writing, as if these very private tales are being whispered urgently in your ear. And with the telling of them, O’Farrell can both expel her demons and imprint the legacy of survival on those around her.

And what an extraordinary legacy that is. Through a long series of improbable but utterly believable incidents (a few the consequence of lapsed judgment, but most down to just plain bad luck) we learn that O’Farrell has led a life punctuated by misfortune, menace and peril. And from the opening chapter, Neck, when a solitary outing in the mountains results in a shocking encounter (and which any parent of a gap-year child will surely feel compelled to place in front of them as a cautionary tale) we know that we’re in the hands of a master. This is controlled, artful storytelling at its best, made all the more potent because it is true.

O’Farrell is clearly made of gritty stuff. As each subsequent episode unfolds, she will be paralysed for months, lose blood by the bucketful, feel the whisper of a knife blade in her hair, a cord wrapped ominously round her neck – and be ever mindful of the consequences of her experience. The conclusion is that a life lived at risk – and indeed danger itself – heightens our awareness, sharpens our reality, and ultimately refines our understanding, making us better able to live.

And, in O’Farrell’s case, better able to write about living.

So perhaps we have the many faces of danger to thank for the gift of Maggie O’Farrell the novelist: the murderous walker encountered on a remote mountain trail, the killer wave on an Indian Ocean beach, the bacterial virus lurking in the bloodstream, the pair of predatory drifters on a back road in France. All of these have clearly shaped O’Farrell’s sensibilities, both as a woman and a writer.

By the end we also understand what impelled her to write this book: in the final chapter (Daughter) we learn that one of O’Farrell’s three children lives with a rare immunology disorder that puts her at extreme risk of anaphylactic shock in the course of each day. Both mother and daughter live continuously on red alert, their lives conducted against ‘a constant background hum of potential peril.’ O’Farrell longs for her children’s lives to be ‘unencumbered by worry, by discomfort, by the judgement of others.’ She longs for them to live the life that she has led.

This is not so much a memoir then, but a fierce shout of relief, defiance and gratitude. And a welcome addition to her canon.

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20 Comments

  • Eileen postlethwaite

    I have read several books by Maggie O’Farrell and enjoy the twists and turns of her story lines. This new book perhaps gives us the clues to some of her characters and their human experiences which she can write about having experienced the real life emotions herself.
    The most thought- proving book which left a mark on me was “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.” by Maggie O’Farrell. Having just returned from Edinburgh and taking the open top bus tour ride, We were introduced to some of the historical buildings including the madhouse via head phones and an audio tape.
    As I heard accounts of this dreadful establishment and the inmates I remembered this story of a young girl placed there because she was pregnant and an embarrassment to her family. And poor Esme spent 61 years in the asylum. Seeing this building made that story even more real, Maggie O’Farrel had studied records and had read that was an acceptable reason for a poor girl to be admitted to the asylum, in this story by her own family and then forgotten. In her sad story Esme, the poor girl spent the rest of her life there and was only released because it was closing. And of course with a twist at the end….which you need to read to find out.
    I look forward to reading this new book.

  • Rosemary Derwent

    Yes sounds exciting and UNBELIEVABLE But I think we all have afew lucky we’re still here tales don’t we…

    My turn will come to spill the beans eventually and i’m working on a series of art works called Dreamscapes, which i’ll accompany with words i hope for a Spring Exhibition next year…

  • Looking forward to reading this!

  • Maria Mcgillewie

    Love Maggie o Farrell cannot wait to read this one

  • can’t wait to read….just need a quite corner in my hectic day

  • Can’t wait to read ..she’s one of my favourite writers. It’s always a challenge & a pleasure to read one of her books

  • I heard a reading from this book yesterday on Radio 4’s ‘Book of the week’ and I just had to stop what I was doing as I was so moved by the story and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. It then hit me that this was the same book I had just read about posted on the Toast Book Club. Thank you Toast and Radio 4 for highlighting this book.

  • Jacqueline Bentley

    Only like to read factual, sound right up my street. Will buy this, will keep me entertained for the next year!

  • Just heard part of the last chapter travelling in the car at 11 am this morning towards Cherbourg. I was totally gripped but the transmission kept breaking up and I am longing to read the full account. What I heard developed my understanding of how life with a child with this immunological disorder is. Cant stop thinking too that there was some preparation in her “brushes with death”

  • Dorothy Williams

    I own,and have read every one of Maggie O’Farrell’s books,each one leaving its own imprint.”I am,I am,I am” surpasses each and every one.It is compelling,thought provoking and so,so readable. I find it “unputdownable”.Her life experiences have clearly made her the wonderful writer she is.
    To anyone hesitating as to whether this book is for them – just read it but be prepared .It will prove itself !

  • my favourite author so thank you for this update

  • Mrs Ainsley Dermody

    Sounds fabulous. I live my life by the maxim ” Grab life by the neck and give it a good shake”. I will attempt to buy the book for my 4 adult children for Christmas, if it’s available in NZ. My life too has been one of adventure some of it life threatening and some of it heartbreaking, however it’s all character building and books waiting to be written. Arohanui, Mrs Ainsley Dermody

  • Corrinna Moore, Dalkey, co. Dublin

    Listened to the reading of an excerpt of this exceptional work yesterday on Radio 4. I was driving to a funeral in Derry and perhaps this heightened my sense of mortality but the writing was so vivid that I found myself gasping for breath as she did; I had to turn the volume down as I couldn’t bear the thought of her not reaching the bathing platform with her son on her back. I was determined then and even more so now to read the book and find out what happened next!

  • Golly. How sheltered my life is ! And yes: it quite probably makes for a better writer, a better understander of human nature. It is of course particularly potent as it’s all true and though I haven’t read the last section, I’m sure the truth of her daughters condition will be sensitively and honestly dealt with, rather than sensationalised.

  • Perfect for Fall. Can’t wait.

  • Feelings heightened, unsettled, reflective! Want to read this and share with my family first.

  • Saska Fitzgerald

    She writes with wit and a lightness of spirit…makes one gasp..and then smile.
    A wonderful use of words..transports one…which is what memorable literature sets out to do.

  • Something different. She is an amazing writer of fiction and this sounds great too. Thank you once again for flagging up an interesting book

  • Ingrid Selberg

    I’ve been listening to this on Radio4 but will be buying so I can enjoy the full book. I think it’s her best writing to date: vivid and passionate as ever but it feels more immediate, intense and real than her novels.

  • Sounds glorious and varied, will definitely give it a try