Book Review

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

near death experiences in a bad blog post

Maggie O’Farrell has stared into the face of death numerous times. She has almost drowned, almost been hit by cars, had a near-fatal birth, she was chatted up by a creep who murdered a different young woman in the exact same place a few days later… And more.

In I Am, I Am, I Am – a smash hit memoir from 2017 – O’Farrell writes an engaging, raucously moving book that creates a full evocation of a life by weaving together the circumstances surrounding seventeen occasions of near-death. And although a couple are tenuous (childhood traffic-related non-accidents, the like of which I have several times a week) the majority are harrowing encounters that only luck, persistence – and twice money – were able to stop.

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I typed some of this on my phone as I walked through central Barcelona at 9pm and TWICE during that walk I was nearly hit by rapid pavement cyclists. If they had hit me, rather than brushed my elbow, I would have been floored and – had I landed badly or been pierced by a broken spoke – possibly killed. But these are not near-death experiences, this is just part of city life. And this is the impression I’ve held onto since finishing O’Farrell’s book. A lot of the things she writes about aren’t near-death experiences, they are things that could have become near-death experiences. I regularly walk down busy roads, I often go wild swimming, I have walked alone in the dark through “dangerous” parts of the world (both rural and urban) but I wouldn’t call any of these experiences near-death. I’m being cynical here, unfortunately, but I believe it’s a cynicism that is kinda justified.

Then again, O’Farrell’s book isn’t all faux-risk, some of is harrowingly real: we see her get dysentery in China, we read about her being mugged at machete-point in South America, we see her desperate for hospital-grade antihistamines in Italy and nearly drowning in the Indian Ocean at the private beach of a luxury Tanzanian resort.

And, yes, there is a casual internationalism within the text that I only feel deserves attention due to a chokingly false tone of shame that enters the prose when O’Farrell first writes about using private healthcare. To me, it felt wrong to display (what others might call) “performative disapproval” at private healthcare when no such disapproval is shown when O’Farrell writes about her swanky higher education, her professional success, her extensive travels or the fact that she owns property in London.

Imagine thinking you have to pretend you believe spending money on healthcare is bad, when you explicitly do not think any other benefits of affluence are? Eurgh. This bugged me, particularly because of the lack of shame – where perhaps due – when O’Farrell gleefully writes about skipping the queue back into the NHS thanks to her private GP’s connections. This is surely where the immorality lies, right, using money to get something for free, but before it “should” have been given, had you played fair?

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I’ve been thinking about class a lot recently, much more than I’ve been thinking about death, so it’s unsurprising it was this that overshadowed my reading of I Am, I Am, I Am. Class has been the battle of my own life. I have nearly died (by O’Farrell’s definition) many times, and some of them have happened while I’ve been glamorously travelling the world, something I continue to do even though I no longer have proximity to affluence. Class is complicated, but to acknowledge its problems in one sentence but fail to explore that explicit problem (i.e. preferential healthcare for the rich) and to never mention any other implications of success feels neglectful from a writer as insightful and human as O’Farrell.

I’ve now been adding and subtracting from this post for three weeks.

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The fact is I Am, I Am, I Am is a beautiful book. It made me laugh, it made me weep, it made me shiver in empathetic horror. I read it (metaphorically) with fingers covering my eyes at several points. I loved O’Farrell’s voice and I adored the detail with which she discussed physicality, I loved the closeness to the fragility of her body and the lack of prudish shame. I liked her geographic descriptions and I liked the chapters that offered personal insights into her family lives. Where I thought the book was weak, though, was in its squeamish vagueness around romance, an often pointed vagueness at odds to the – elsewhere – deeply open tone.

I’m not requesting prurience, just clear “this was a lover, this was not a lover” differentiation, as the reactions from someone who is a friend or a new boyfriend or a long-term partner to – for example – bouts of diarrhoea would be different. But this is a minor gripe. Though… there’s something about this book that makes me want to make minor gripes, I think perhaps because it is so good the fact it isn’t better is very apparent. Is that was this blog has become? Me finding reasons to hate something I liked but didn’t love, and me finding ways to be polite about things I’ve hated? I’ve read some things in the last few months I thought were piss awful, but I’ve said less negative things about them than I have about this book, which is good.

I’m not dealing with not being depressed very well, I don’t think. Meh. Who knows?

I’m exercising again, just in the hope of losing weight and this act, this act so fucking vain, is making me hate myself again. And it’s wasting time. But I want to be thinner. Why? I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know. I want to fit in my trousers.

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I Am, I Am, I Am is amazing and I’m nit-picking, probably because this is the kinda book I wish I’d written, and because I know at the moment I couldn’t. O’Farrell’s masterful memoir is not perfect, but nothing is, nothing nothing nothing is. This is a treat, and recommended. I’m just not certain… ah… being alive is???


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