Keeping Up With The Penguins

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I Am, I Am, I Am – Maggie O’Farrell

Can you remember a time you almost died? Maggie O’Farrell can – in fact, she can remember 17 unique brushes with death. In I Am, I Am, I Am, she writes about each of them in turn. As she says in this collection of essays, “I know all too well how fine a membrane separates us from that place, and how easily it can be perforated.”

I Am, I Am, I Am - Maggie O'Farrell - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The title, I Am, I Am, I Am, is of course an allusion to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am,”). It hints at both O’Farrell’s overarching philosophy and her appropriation of well-practiced techniques for writing fiction in telling her true stories. O’Farrell had avoided writing about herself at all prior to this book, her first autobiographical work, but her extensive body of fiction has clearly given her the skills she needs to spin a good yarn.

What surprised me, first off, is that the stories of O’Farrell’s brushes with death aren’t told in chronological order. Narrative tradition would dictate that she starts with the very first incident, the one that happened when she was the youngest, and work her way forward to the present day. Not so! It’s hard to divine any true organisation or hierarchy to these stories beyond Vibes. As such, I Am, I Am, I Am reads more like a series of disparate morbid essays, rather than a life story relayed through a series of notable events.

Maybe that was intentional, though. When you’re telling a variation on the same story seventeen times, you risk boring the reader or lulling them into complacency, so O’Farrell might’ve thought she needed to pull a few rabbits out of the hat to keep us interested. There’s enough variety within the stories themselves, though, to keep things exciting. Each is contained within its own chapter named for the body part affected (cerebellum, circulatory system, and so forth), and takes the reader through the event in heart-stopping detail.

There’s the encounter with the machete-wielding mugger in South America, the night of teenage misadventure that almost ended underwater, the childhood illness O’Farrell wasn’t expected to survive, the traumatic labour and eventual C-section, the plane malfunction that sent her and her fellow passengers hurtling through the sky… All terrifying, in their own way.

For me, the most impactful chapter is the very first, Neck. O’Farrell sets the bar high for the rest of I Am, I Am, I Am, which is always a risk. This encounter with death happened when O’Farrell was in her late teens, working at a remote retreat and taking hikes around the surrounding trails when not on duty. A man starts to follow her, initiates conversation, insists on putting his binoculars around her neck to show her the birds, all the while her gut is screaming at her to RUN. It’s a terrifying situation, a threat sadly recognisable to just about every woman in the world, but the real gut-punch comes at the very end. Cops show up to the retreat to talk to O’Farrell the following week, and reveal that the man who followed her went on to murder a 22-year-old backpacker in the area – by strangling her with the strap of his binoculars.

So, yes, some of O’Farrell’s stories are truly terrifying, and you’ll find your heart rate rising as you read. Other instances… well, it must be said, some of the brushes with death in I Am, I Am, I Am are closer than others. A couple seem like a bit of a stretch. It made me wonder why O’Farrell felt to include all of them. Was 17 some magical number she was determined to reach? I Am, I Am, I Am is a great read, but I think it would’ve been even better pared down by a vicious editor.

Thematically, I Am, I Am, I Am falls into an interesting segment of the Venn diagram. In some respects, it’s a travel memoir. In spite of O’Farrell’s brushes with death (or because of them) she has a serious and lifelong case of wanderlust. In others, it’s a disability memoir; both O’Farrell and her daughter live with disabilities (brain damage, life-threatening allergies and dermatological conditions, respectively) and it colours the way they experience both their bodies and the world. That said, don’t mistake I Am, I Am, I Am for a misery memoir; O’Farrell’s aim is not to exploit her trauma or bum the reader out. In fact, for the most part, she has a rather blithe and nonchalant attitude about her frequent flirtations with the Grim Reaper. It’s only in the final chapter, about her daughter’s illness, that the cracks really show and her distress comes across.

It’s worth mentioning here, too, that O’Farrell is donating from the proceeds of I Am, I Am, I Am to the Anaphylaxis Campaign and to Medical Alert Dogs, to support people who live with conditions like her daughter’s.

All told, I Am, I Am, I Am is a riveting read penned by a practice hand. O’Farrell’s extensive experience writing acclaimed fiction has clearly served her well in finally sharing her own stories. Sure, some parts might’ve been better left out, but that’s just my opinion and I’m happy to defer to O’Farrell’s expertise and wisdom here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of I Am, I Am, I Am:

  • “This book is a waste of money and time. So many life and death moments and of course the reader already knows the author is still alive.” – Mekdi
  • “If I used the same criteria that the author uses for “brushes with death” I could come up with a thousand for myself, and I’ve lived a relatively dull life! … All of the chapters/events are told in a self-absorbed style, as if her life was filled with hardships and challenges, but most people have similar experiences. It’s called life. Midway through, I was almost rooting for her demise.” – Kevin F. Giannini
  • “I found this book about brushes with death quite boring. I think her brush must have a very long handle!” – Luci King
  • “a 35 page whine about her kid’s allergies. That’s not what I signed up for reading this. It felt like the author just wanted a reason to talk about herself without sounding like a narcissist. Mission failed.” – Kelley

1 Comment

  1. I agree with you that some of these incidents were so slight they really didn’t qualify as brushes with death. I forgave her though just on the basis of the chapters involving her daughter’s medical emergencies.

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