If you look back on your life up to this point, how would you measure it? In “I AM, I AM, I AM”, Maggie O’Farrell does so through seventeen near-death experiences; one experience = one chapter.
If dicing with death doesn’t sound up your street, please don’t be put off; this is by no means a gloom-fest, in fact, it’s quite the opposite – a celebration of life, and how precious it is. Each chapter has a brush with death at its heart, but not in a grisly or sensational way. Each is the focal point, yet part of a bigger picture – of a life being lived; of the warmth of family; of loves, waxing and waning; all interwoven.
A scary situation
Maggie begins by relating perhaps the most shocking, and certainly most chilling of the tales. At 18, post-school exams and pre-university, she leaves home to work over summer in a mountain retreat.
Her first taste of freedom, which was, but for a masterclass in calm and quick thinking, nearly her last. Walking one day close to her place of work, Maggie passes a man who then lies in wait for her return. There is no one around: they are alone. He places the strap of his binoculars around her neck.
The next moments are crucial. Maggie keeps talking. Yes, aren’t the eider ducks interesting? Yes, isn’t it hot, and yes, my employers will come looking for me soon so I must get going now, do you see?
Maggie escapes; she relates her tale to the police, but nothing is done and another young girl is not so fortunate. Remembered every day, but gone nonetheless. An event so profoundly shocking it was impossible to verbalise; Maggie told no other living soul about it for years.
Although the experiences within the book themselves are by turns alarming, life-changing, wearying, this book radiates with optimism.
Yes, scary things happen, but there’s always a positive for every negative. Hospital-bound following encephalitis, a young Maggie hears herself described as ‘dying’ – yet the months of incapacity lead to her talent for quiet assessment – of people, of situations.
Disappointment at a less-than-hoped-for degree morphs into the happiness of a blossoming career as a writer.
Every parent of a child with health issues will recognise the exhausting, constant, meerkat-like state of alert; but this is balanced by encounters with amazing healthcare professionals (especially the breastfeeding counsellor who gently offers life-changing help).
The most life-affirming moments in the book arrive courtesy of the kindness of those Maggie meets along the way. Vincent, her summer-job employer, who looks out for her in a fatherly way. Her friend Eric, making light of her heartache through humour.
The man who wordlessly held Maggie’s hand in both of his during hospital horror. And the young, wheelchair-bound man giving the young, wheelchair-bound Maggie toffees and making bets on which one of them would be back to walking first, knowing full well it would never be him.
Little acts of generosity sparkling; sunbeams illuminating dancing dust. Because it all ultimately comes down to how we treat each other, doesn’t it?
“I Am, I Am, I Am” by Maggie O’Farrell is published by Tinder Press.