I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell was given to me for my birthday by my sister. I wasn’t sure what to think, but was instantly fascinated by its opening chapter and by the concept of a book detailing moments when life pivots and you realise what might have been.
These stories are not told in the order in which they happened. This works really well, as you jump around in time and get tantalising glimpses ahead (like when the author describes telling a future boyfriend about that chapter’s story), and backwards, to events you don’t yet know about (a baby nearly dying at birth who is currently nearly dying again as a child). The whole book is beautifully written in its stripped-back, cool, factual style, which contrasts with the emotional intensity of these stories about escaping death.
The opening chapter was chilling. I frequently walk alone in the countryside with my dog, sometimes for hours at a time without seeing other people. My mother did the same at my age and she was once assaulted by a stranger on a dog walk walking alone near our home when I was a child. So, to read a story about a women walking alone’s worst nightmare cut to the bone for me. O’Farrell describes how she reacted when a man stepped into her path clearly intent on harming her, and how she somehow retained her cool and by doing so saved her own life. Spoiler alert, but you know when he puts his binocular straps around her neck that this will end in murder. Not on this occasion the author’s, but sadly later someone else’s.
There is also a chapter on miscarriage, which I think is the best writing on miscarriage that I have ever read. She describes what it is like to be sent after a scan to the room for bad news. Or after another miscarriage to have to see the looks on expectant parents’ faces, when having to sit amongst them after getting the news that her baby had no heartbeat, and feeling shunned, as if she, and indeed miscarriage, were contagious.
There is a chapter on dealing with her daughter’s allergies, which made me really understand what it must be like to have to rely on strangers not to open a bag of peanuts on a plane, and never being able to go on holiday to somewhere too far away from a major hospital. This is a scenario a close friend of mine has to live with, but this writing made me really feel what it must be like, in a way that I hadn’t done before.
This is a hopeful book, which makes you want to grasp onto life with both hands, to appreciate your own luck and that your own brushes with death were just that. It makes you grateful to be alive and reminds you how precious life is. It won’t stop me walking alone with my dog in remote places, but it will make me even more appreciative of being able to do so.