I Am, I Am, I Am (O'Farrell)

I Am, I Am, I Am:  Seventeen Brushes with Death
Maggie O'Farrell, 2018
Knopf Doubleday
304 pp.

An extraordinary memoir—told entirely in near-death experiences—from one of Britain's best-selling novelists, for fans of Wild, When Breath Becomes Air, and The Year of Magical Thinking.

We are never closer to life than when we brush up against the possibility of death.

I Am, I Am, I Am is Maggie O'Farrell's astonishing memoir of the near-death experiences that have punctuated and defined her life.

The childhood illness that left her bedridden for a year, which she was not expected to survive. A teenage yearning to escape that nearly ended in disaster. An encounter with a disturbed man on a remote path. And, most terrifying of all, an ongoing, daily struggle to protect her daughter—for whom this book was written—from a condition that leaves her unimaginably vulnerable to life's myriad dangers.

Seventeen discrete encounters with Maggie at different ages, in different locations, reveal a whole life in a series of tense, visceral snapshots.

In taut prose that vibrates with electricity and restrained emotion, O'Farrell captures the perils running just beneath the surface, and illuminates the preciousness, beauty, and mysteries of life itself (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Coleraine, Northern Ireland, UK
Raised—Wales and Scotland, UK
Education—Cambridge University
Awards—Costa Award; Betty Trask Award; Somerset Maugham Award
Currently—lives in London, England

Maggie O'Farrell is a British author of contemporary fiction, who was once featured in Waterstones' 25 Authors for the Future. It is possible to identify several common themes in her novels—the relationship between sisters is one, another is loss and the psychological impact of those losses on the lives of her characters.

The Vanishing Act Esme Lennox was published in 2007. In 2010 O'Farrell won the Costa novel award for The Hand That First Held Mine. Her 2013 novel, Instructions for a Heatwave, also received wide acclaim.

Maggie was born in Ireland and grew up in Wales and Scotland. At the age of eight she missed a year of school due to a viral infection, an event that is echoed in The Distance Between Us. Maggie worked as a journalist, both in Hong Kong and as the Deputy Literary Editor of The Independent on Sunday. She has also taught creative writing.

She is married to the novelist William Sutcliffe, whom she met at Cambridge. They live in Hampstead Heath, London, with their two children. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
Where other writers may be playing with paper, O’Farrell takes up a bow and arrow and aims at the human heart.
Times (UK)

Extraordinary… uncomfortable and compelling—a page turner.… Fluent, poised, packed with colourful details. Her prose seems invulnerable. It has the sheen of fiction.
Guardian (UK)

O’Farrell emerges as determined, loyal, fierce and stoic; not to be messed with.… The message is that we must live in the moment, finding joy and freedom where we can, but O’Farrell writes so convincingly about the peril that each episode just serves as another detailed, technicolour reminder that we, and more terrifyingly, our loved ones, are only ever one bad decision, faulty choice or sliver of ill-fortune away from catastrophe. This is a mesmerising read.
Sunday Times (UK)

O’Farrell has a compelling and arresting writing style that fills in a scene quickly and engagingly, to great dramatic and narrative effect.… It is heady, engaging stuff—a bristling, rollercoaster of a read.
New Statesman (UK)

Electric.… Astonishing.… Should be read by everyone.… Affecting: wise, terrifying, vital and important… I can count on one hand the books that made me cry and still have two fingers spare. I Am, I Am, I Am is one of them.
Irish Times (UK)

[A] stunning collection of vignettes about near-death experiences in her life.… Her most dramatic examination of the precipice between life and death is when she writes about her children.… [F]ascinating and thought-provoking.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) Astounding…awe-inspiring…a tour de force

Throughout, the narrative is compelling and visceral; O'Farrell knows how to draw in readers.… An intriguing and mostly engaging collection of life-threatening stories.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. The title of the book comes from a passage in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, in which a character seems to be reminding herself she’s still alive. Why is this an apt title for this memoir?

2. O’Farrell skips around in time rather than telling her stories chronologically. Why do you think she does this? What effect does it have on the reader?

3. Why has O’Farrell had so many near-death experiences—is she merely unlucky, or does something else explain it?

4. In "Neck," O’Farrell describes her job at a retreat: "I clear away human traces, erasing all evidence that they have eaten, slept, made love, argued, washed, worn clothes, read newspapers, shed hair and skin and bristle and blood and toenails" (page 5). Why does she view her work this way? What does it tell us about her?

5. We learn about O’Farrell’s neurological condition in "Lungs" (2000), when she seems to be on her way to drowning. What drives her to risk her life like this, when she knows her own limitations?

6. The chapter in which O’Farrell narrowly avoids being hit by a car is called "Spine, Legs, Pelvis, Abdomen, Head." What does this refer to?

7. When she fails to secure postgraduate funding, O’Farrell abandons her fascination with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: "I must shut the door on it—and her. I liked my connection with her, through the words of the story. I relied on it. I felt as though I had reached back through time, down through the pages of the book, and taken hold of her hand. But I must give her up. I won’t read the book again for many years" (page 53). Why does she feel this way?

8. In various places throughout the book, O’Farrell paints herself in a negative light—for instance, says, "I am too volatile, too skittish, too impatient" (page 54). What do you, the reader, think of her self-portrait?

9. How does the incident on the plane propel O’Farrell into writing?

10. Several of O’Farrell’s near-death experiences relate to the fact that she’s female. What role does gender play here?

11. At O'Farrell’s near-catastrophic childbirth, a mysterious man in beige steps in with an unexpected kindness. She writes, "When he took my hand he taught me something about the value of touch, the communicative power of the human hand" (page 92). Why does this have such an impact on her?

12. After her "missed miscarriage," what makes O’Farrell so reluctant to have the operation?

13. In the chapter entitled "Lungs" (2010), O’Farrell discusses her childhood fascination with the myth of the selkie (page 120). Why does she think of this when she’s caught in a riptide? How does the memory help her?

14. What do we learn about O’Farrell from the story about the knife thrower?

15. In "Cranium" and again in "Bloodstream," two chapters dealing with infidelity, O’Farrell switches to third-person narration. Why? How does this change your reading experience?

16. On page 206, O’Farrell recalls her father’s admonition, "Stay in your depth!" Aside from the drowning connotations, where else could this apply in her life?

17. In "Cerebellum," we learn that many of O’Farrell’s behaviors may be a result of her childhood bout with encephalitis. How does this change your opinion of her?

18. O’Farrell describes the period during which she was sick as one of the key points in her life: "The hinge on which my childhood swung. Until that morning I woke up with a headache, I was one person, and after it, I was quite another" (page 226). Looking beyond the physical and neurological effects of encephalitis, what does she mean?

19. Several times in "Daughter," O’Farrell wonders what she did to cause her daughter’s condition. Why does she seek to blame herself?

20. O’Farrell ends her memoir with an echo to the title: "She is, she is, she is." Why does this phrase resonate with her?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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