Cover image for I am, I am, I am : seventeen brushes with death / Maggie O'Farrell.
I am, I am, I am : seventeen brushes with death / Maggie O'Farrell.
First American and Canadian edition.
Publication Information:
Toronto : Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2018.

Physical Description:
288 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
General Note:
"This is a Borzoi book"--T.p. verso.
Personal Subject:


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
823.914 OFA Book Adult General Collection
823.914 OFA Book Adult General Collection

On Order



An extraordinary memoir--told entirely in near-death experiences--from one of Britain's bestselling 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 in the hospital for nearly a year, which she was not expected to survive. A teenage yearning to escape that nearly ended in disaster. An encounter with a serial killer on a remote path. And, most terrifying of all, an ongoing, daily struggle to protect her daughter 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 a restrained emotion, O'Farrell captures the perils running just beneath the surface, and illuminates the preciousness, beauty and mysteries of life itself.

Author Notes

Maggie O'Farrell is the author of several novels including After You'd Gone, My Lover's Lover, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Instructions for a Heatwave, and This Must Be the Place. She received a Somerset Maugham Award for The Distance Between Us and the 2010 Costa Novel Award for The Hand That First Held Mine.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

British author O'Farrell (This Must Be the Place) has woven together a stunning collection of vignettes about near-death experiences in her life. She begins with a chilling tale of encountering a lone stranger during a hike up a mountain, who she later learns, after talking with the police, is a killer. Each story strikes a different tone, from the somber to the comedic. In "Lungs" she tells of taking a perilous dive off a cliff into the sea and nearly drowning when she was a teen desperate for adventure in a small Scottish seaside town in the late 1980s. Regarding these encounters with death, she writes, "They will take up residence inside you and become part of who you are, like a heart stent or a pin that holds together a broken bone." Her most dramatic examination of the precipice between life and death is when she writes about her children. In a story that is both heartbreaking and hopeful, she tells of her daughter's diagnosis with an immunological disorder, which left O'Farrell contemplating life's fragility. O'Farrell's recollections of her brushes with death are fascinating and thought-provoking. (Feb.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

TWO REMARKABLE POEMS written in the latter half of the 20 th century - Wislawa Szymborska's "Could Have" and Jane Kenyon's "Otherwise" - address the shadow Iife that presses itself against us in every living moment. "It could have happened. / It had to happen"; so begins the Szymborska. "I got out of bed / on two strong legs. / It might have been / otherwise," is the opening of Kenyon's. The poets remind us that our lives are at the mercy of near misses, catastrophes averted. We make our peace with this present danger - or we don't. We embrace those we love more ferociously knowing we're not in control of their fates, or ours - or we don't. The Northern Irish novelist Maggie O'Farrell is consumed with this shadow life in her transfixing "I Am I Am I Am," a memoir that trains its fierce intelligence on her 17 near-death experiences. O'Farrell is acutely aware that her inner and outer worlds have been shaped at least as powerfully by what didn't happen as what did. In chapters with titles like "Neck," "Lungs," "Cranium" and "Bloodstream," inscripted above intricate black-and-white drawings of the body part in question, Farrell cuts through swaths of her life, using this anatomical structure to great effect as she builds tension and portent. At age 18, she encounters a stranger on a deserted country path and senses "the urge for violence radiating off the man, like heat off a stone." She evades him thanks to her preternatural instinct for danger, but her police report carries little weight. Soon thereafter he murders a different young woman. "It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that I think about her, if not every day then most days," writes the adult O'Farrell, the would-be victim who has survived to tell the tale. "I am aware of her life, which was cut off, curtailed, snipped short, whereas mine, for whatever reason, was allowed to run on." This awareness - of time, luck, fate and "the feeling of having pulled my head, one more time, out of the noose" - drives O'Farrell's story. She reminds us that we all live a hairbreadth from death. At times she shifts skillfully from first- to secondperson narration as if to implore the reader to understand that there is no protection, nor order, nor safety. Not for her, not for us. In brief chapters that can stand alone but create a resounding effect when read together, she recounts a near drowning, a violent mugging, a terrifying childbirth, a plunging jetliner. The midlife writer also describes her youthful risk-taking: Her own mother tells her, these days, that she was "a nightmare to rear." This maternal admonition gains a piercing resonance as the wild child becomes a mother herself, and "I Am I Am I Am" is at its strongest when she describes the intensity of her love and sense of responsibility for her own three children, and her fear of unwittingly putting them in harm's way. Her daughter is born with an immune-system disorder and an array of terrifying allergies. Anaphylaxis, O'Farrell tells us, means "without protection." The little girl who once sought danger has grown into a parent who lives "in a state of high alert." If I have a quibble with this book, it's that there are a few spots where O'Farrell's wise and lyrical voice veers toward the didactic, including footnotes and journalistic asides that distract from the deep emotional resonance. In the end, this memoir is a mystical howl, a thrumming, piercing reminder of how very closely we all exist alongside what could have happened, but didn't. DANI SHAPIRO is the author, most recently, of "Hourglass."

Library Journal Review

Cats may have nine lives, but O'Farrell, who won the Costa Book Award for The Hand That First Held Mine, has had 17, as revealed in this stupendous collection of essays named for various body parts that have caused her near demise. Her aural stand-in, British actor Daisy Donovan, is temperamentally well matched, never acknowledging any hints of self-pity or despair. Donovan's steady tone embodies O'Farrell's remarkable strength recalling illnesses, violence, and accidents. At three, O'Farrell narrowly escaped decapitation-by-car-boot (trunk) and full-body flattening by auto two years later. Two near-drownings took her breath away. Remarkably, her experiences left her unafraid of death: "I viewed my continuing life as an extra, a bonus, a boon; I could do with it what I wanted"-until she became a parent. The final chapter, about a daughter made fragile with life-threatening allergies, is perhaps the collection's most affecting, in which keeping her child alive "one more day" becomes a daily miracle. VERDICT Immediate, irreverent, riveting, O'Farrell's mortal escapes emerge as illuminating, inspiring affirmation of everyday life. ["A heartfelt meditation on the fragility and wonder of life": LJ 3/1/18 starred review of the Knopf hc.]-Terry Hong, -Smithsonian -BookDragon, -Washington, DC © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



NECK 1990   On the path ahead, stepping out from behind a boulder, a man appears. We are, he and I, on the far side of a dark tarn that lies hidden in the bowl-curved summit of this mountain. The sky is a milky blue above us; no vegetation grows this far up so it is just me and him, the stones and the still black water. He straddles the narrow track with both booted feet and he smiles. I realise several things. That I passed him earlier, farther down the glen. We greeted each other, in the amiable yet brief manner of those on a country walk. That, on this remote stretch of path, there is no one near enough to hear me call. That he has been waiting for me: he has planned this whole thing, carefully, meticulously, and I have walked into his trap. I see all this, in an instant. * This day--a day on which I nearly die--began early for me, just after dawn, my alarm clock leaping into a rattling dance beside the bed. I had to pull on my uniform, leave the caravan and tiptoe down some stone steps into a deserted kitchen, where I flicked on the ovens, the coffee machines, the toasters, where I sliced five large loaves of bread, filled the kettles, folded forty paper napkins into open-petalled orchids. I have just turned eighteen, and I have pulled off an escape. From everything: home, school, parents, exams, the waiting for results. I have found a job, far away from everyone I know, in what is advertised as a "holistic, alternative retreat" at the base of a mountain. I serve breakfast, I clear away breakfast, I wipe tables, I remind guests to leave their keys. I go into the rooms, I make the beds, I change the sheets, I tidy. I pick up clothes and towels and books and shoes and essential oils and meditation mats from the floor. I learn, from the narratives inherent in possessions left strewn around the bedrooms, that people are not always what they seem. The rather sententious, exacting man who insists on a specific table, certain soap, an entirely fat-free milk has a penchant for cloud-soft cashmere socks and exuberantly patterned silk underwear. The woman who sits at dinner with her precisely buttoned blouse and lowered eyelids and growing-out perm has a nocturnal avatar who will don S&M outfits of an equestrian bent: human bridles, tiny leather saddles, a slender but vicious silver whip. The couple from London, who seem wonderingly, enviably perfect--they hold manicured hands over dinner, they take laughing walks at dusk, they show me photos of their wedding--have a room steeped in sadness, in hope, in grief. Ovulation kits clutter their bathroom shelves. Fertility drugs are stacked on their nightstands. These I don't touch, as if to impart the message, I didn't see this, I am not aware, I know nothing. All morning, I sift and organise and ease the lives of others. 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. I dust, I walk the corridors, trailing the vacuum cleaner behind me on a long leash. Then, around lunchtime, if I'm lucky, I have four hours before the evening shift to do whatever I want. So I have walked up to the lake, as I often do during my time off, and today, for some reason, I have decided to take the path right around to the other side. Why? I forget. Maybe I finished my tasks earlier that day, maybe the guests had been less untidy than usual and I'd got out of the guesthouse before time. Maybe the clear, sun-bright weather has lured me from my usual path. I have also had no reason, at this point in my life, to distrust the countryside. I have been to self-defence lessons, held at the community centre in the small Scottish seaside town where I spent my teens. The teacher, a barrelshaped man in a judo suit, would put scenarios to us with startling Gothic relish. Late at night and you're coming out of a pub, he would say, eyeing us one by one from beneath his excessively sprouting eyebrows, and a huge bloke lunges out from an alleyway and grabs you. Or: you're in a narrow corridor in a nightclub and some drunk shoves you up against a wall. Or: it's dark, it's foggy, you're waiting at the traffic lights and someone seizes your bag strap and pushes you to the ground. These narratives of peril always ended with the same question, put to us with slightly gloating rhetoric: so, what do you do? We practised reversing our elbows into the throats of our imaginary assailants, rolling our eyes as we did so because we were, after all, teenage girls. We took it in turns to rehearse the loudest shout we could. We repeated, dutifully, dully, the weak points in a male body: eye, nose, throat, groin, knee. We believed we had it covered, that we could take on the lurking stranger, the drunk assailant, the bag-snatching mugger. We were sure we'd be able to break their grip, bring up our knee, scratch at their eyes with our nails; we reckoned we could find an exit out of these alarming yet oddly thrilling synopses. We were taught to make noise, to attract attention, to yell, POLICE. We also, I think, imbibed a clear message. Alleyway, nightclub, pub, bus-stop, traffic lights: the danger was urban. In the country, or in rural towns like ours--where there were no nightclubs, no alleyways and no traffic lights, even--things like this did not happen. We were free to do as we pleased. And yet here is this man, high up a mountain, blocking my way, waiting for me. * It seems important not to show my fear, to play along. So I keep walking, keep putting one foot in front of the other. If I turn and run, he could catch up with me in seconds and there would be something so exposing, so final about running. It would uncover to us both what this situation is; it would bring things to a head. The only option seems to be to carry on, to pretend that this is perfectly normal. "Hello again," he says to me, and his gaze slides over my face, my body, my bare, muddy legs. It is a glance more assessing than lascivious, more calculating than lustful: it is the look of a man working something out, planning the logistics of a deed. I cannot meet his gaze, I cannot look at him directly, not quite, but I am aware of narrow-set eyes, a considerable height, ivory-coloured incisors, fists gripping his rucksack straps. I have to clear my throat to say, "Hi." I think I nod. I turn myself sideways so as to step past him: a sharp mix of fresh sweat, leather from his rucksack, some kind of chemical-heavy shaving oil that seems distantly familiar. I am past him, I am walking away, the path is open before me. He has, I note, chosen for his ambush the apex of the hike: I have climbed and climbed, and it is at this point that I will start to descend the mountain, to my guesthouse, to my evening shift, to work, to life. It's all downhill from here. I am careful to use strides that are confident, purposeful, but not frightened. I am not frightened: I say this to myself, over the oceanic roar of my pulse. Perhaps, I think, I am free, perhaps I have misread the situation. Perhaps it's perfectly normal to lie in wait for young girls on remote paths and then let them go. I am eighteen. Just. I know almost nothing. I do know, though, that he is right behind me. I can hear the tread of his boots, the swishing movement of his trouser fabric--some kind of breathable, all-weather affair. And here he is again, falling into step beside me. He walks closely, intimately, his arm at my shoulder, the way a friend might, the way I walked home from school with classmates. "Lovely day," he says, looking into my face. I keep my head bowed. "Yes," I say, "it is." "Very hot. I might go for a swim." There is something peculiar about his diction, I realise, as we tread the path together with rapid, synchronised steps. His words halt mid-syllable; his r s are soft, his t s over-enunciated, his tone flat, almost expressionless. Maybe he's slightly "touched," as the expression goes, like the man who used to live down the road from us. He hadn't thrown anything out since the war and his front garden was overrun, like Sleeping Beauty's castle, with ivy. We used to try to guess what some of the leaf-draped objects were: a car, a fence, a motorbike? He wore knitted hats and patterned tank tops and too-small once-smart suits that were coated with cat-hair. If it was raining, he slung a bin liner over his shoulders. Sometimes he would come to our door with a zipped bag full of kittens for us to play with; other times he would be drunk, livid, wild-eyed and ranting about lost postcards, and my mother would have to take him by the arm and lead him home. "Stay there," she would say to us, "I'll be back in a tick," and she'd be off down the pavement with him. Maybe, I think, with a flood of relief, that's all this means. This man might be like our old neighbour: eccentric, different, now long dead, his house cleared and sanitised, the ivy hacked down and burnt. Perhaps I should be kind, as my mother was. I should be compassionate. I turn to him then, as we walk together, in rapid step, beside the lake. I even smile. "A swim," I say. "That sounds nice." He answers by putting his binocular strap around my neck. Excerpted from I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O'Farrell All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.