I am, I am, I am — Seventeen brushes with death by Maggie O’Farrell

This week, thanks to Wicklow and Waterford City and County Libraries, I got my hands on a copy of I am, I am, I am – Seventeen brushes with death by Maggie O’Farrell. Although I have read O’Farrell’s fiction in the past, this is the first of her non-fiction titles I’ve come across.

It’s a tense and thought-provoking account of seventeen near death experiences. What comes through strongly in each episode is O’Farrell’s genuine appreciation of life and its fragility.

Some of her near-death experiences, such as her childhood illnesses are outside of her control. Others, come from foolish or hasty decisions. In some situations, she is aware of the danger she faces in the moment. In others, that awareness comes later as she reflects on the experience.

Each experience is life enhancing in the sense that it strengthens appreciation of life. And, as O’Farrell puts it, often the things in life that don’t go to plan are the most formative in the long run.

Survival is thanks to a combination of luck, circumstance,  personal skills and, occasionally, the intervention of others.

Patterns repeat

However, I was also struck by the similarity in some of the situations she encounters. This made me think about how patterns repeat in life when we make the same kinds of choices that we’ve always made. The older I get, the more I notice this in myself and my friends. So much so,  I wonder sometimes if we are hard-wired not to learn in certain situations. Or, perhaps, as seems to  the case for Maggie O’Farrell, the lure of adventure or freedom outweighs our sense of risk.

Brushes with death

So, over the course of a lifetime, most of us have occasional brushes with death through ill-health, accident, carelessness or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  O’Farrell’s seventeen brushes with death, are a reminder of both of the fragility of life and the rewards of living bravely.

Other titles by Maggie O’Farrell include The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and The Hand That First Held Mine.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

Readers who like short novels may be drawn to Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. This relatively short and very readable novel is set in Scotland.  The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox delivers plenty of suspense as the story unfolds. Essentially it is a family story — part mystery, part drama  — centered on the related lives of three women: Iris, who owns a vintage clothing shop and is involved in a relationship with a married man; Kitty, her grandmother, who is suffering from Alzheimers and living in a care home; and Esme, the great aunt that Iris had never heard of until she gets a call from an asylum where Esme has been an inmate for more than 60 years.

Family secrets spill in a thoughtful and sensitive cleverly woven story which also explores some deeper themes such as how identity is transferred across generations. “We are all, Esme decides, just vessels through which identities pass: we are lent features, gestures, habits, then we hand them on. Nothing is our own.”

Maggie O’Farrell has a gift for creating believable, human characters and drawing the reader into their stories. In my opinion, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is one of her best novels to date.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell was first published in 2006. eBook published by Headline Publishing, 2009. eISBN 9780755372263.

The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell won the 2010 Costa Book Award for her book, The Hand That First Held Mine. Born in Northern Ireland, O’Farrell has written several numbers, among them The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox which is reviewed elsewhere on this website.

The Hand that First Held Mine tells the story of two couples. In the first story, set in the past, Lexie Sinclair runs away from home to London in the 1950s where she sets up home with magazine editor/publisher Innes Kent. Their’s is a beautiful and happy love story, for a time.

In the second story which is set in the present, Elina has just given birth and is learning to cope with her new baby. Her partner, Ted, finds the new baby stirs up memories of his own childhood that are disturbing because they don’t entirely fit with his present circumstances.

The two stories are interlinked and although the reader guesses that from the outset, it takes quite a while to learn exactly where the links are.

The Hand that First Held Mine  is very well written and will have you turning the pages. If you haven’t read Maggie O’Farrell before, do give her a try. I don’t think that you will be disappointed.