Edinburgh Book Festival: I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death Maggie O'FarrellThe last event I attended at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Monday was Maggie O’Farrell in conversation with Hannah Beckerman. The discussion during the first half focused on her latest novel This Must Be The Place which I read last year while the second half explored her new book and first work of non-fiction ‘I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death’ which is published in the UK this week.

O’Farrell has chosen a unique and innovative perspective from which to write her memoir and seems to have experienced what I hope is a much higher than average number of brushes with death for a woman in her forties. These episodes really are near misses and the varied circumstances in which she came close to dying include almost drowning on more than one occasion, contracting amoebic dysentery whilst travelling in China, being robbed in Chile by a man holding a machete to her neck and serious complications during the birth of her first child. While most of these brushes with death are written as short snapshots, the final two chapters are much longer and detail her treatment for encephalitis as a young child and her daughter’s life-threatening immunological disorder which can trigger anaphylaxis.

At the event, O’Farrell talked about how she prefers writing non-chronological plots in her novels and the episodic structure of her memoir is no different. She also experiments with writing in different tenses, something which is done very effectively in this book and shows that memoirs don’t necessarily have to be written in the first person to be convincing.

O’Farrell is one of the most perceptive fiction writers I have come across and she revealed that her long spell in hospital as a child taught her to become a listener and develop an acute awareness of other people’s body language. She was not expected to survive the encephalitis which left her with neurological issues particularly with spatial awareness and this early experience with serious illness may also explain why she is a risk-taker, as evidenced by the nature and context of some of her later brushes with death.

‘I Am, I Am, I Am’ initially began life as a private project in response to her daughter’s diagnosis and it wasn’t intended for publication. Most of her friends and family have not been named in the book and O’Farrell only accepted a £1 advance from her publisher in case she changed her mind at the last minute. For someone who originally thought she would never publish a memoir, O’Farrell has produced an exceptionally intense and soul-bearing account of the most terrifying moments of her life. I finished it yesterday just over a day after I started it and it is very likely to be one of my favourite books of the year, which makes the copy I got signed after the event even more special.

Maggie O'Farrell signed copy I Am, I Am, I Am

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17 Comments

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17 responses to “Edinburgh Book Festival: I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

  1. Margarita Morris

    I heard a couple of extracts on radio 4 last week. It sounds very compelling.

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  2. I’m listening on the radio too and that first chapter is really scary and grabs you. I’m also struck by the power that men have over women, not necessarily by what they do, but what they don’t do, and how they don’t listen.

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  3. I’m reading this at the moment. It’s fantastic! I love the echoes from her novels.

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  4. Annoyingly, BBC Radio 4 are already serialising this book. Which means that either one jumps up and turns off the radio or gets an extracted version of a book that is already in the TBR pile. Like you, I love Maggie O’Farrell’s novels and was intending to read the memoir. Having heard most of it on the radio now (too lazy to get up) it may sink further down the pile for a bit.

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  5. I picked up a copy this morning after reading about it and hearing parts of it on Radio 4. Mind you, given that it’s Maggie O’Farrell I would have bought it anyway. It made me think of the number of times we take risks without even knowing that we’re doing so. In my twenties I used to walk back to my digs at night along unlit roads without giving it a second thought. Ten years later I discovered I had been living in the same small town as the Yorkshire Ripper!

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    • Yes, I’m sure lots of near-death or life-changing experiences are ones that we never realise we came close to. One of the most chilling revelations in this book is that Jimmy Saville visited Maggie O’Farrell in hospital when she had encephalitis as a child but fortunately she wasn’t left alone with him as the nurse stayed with her.

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  6. I really wanted this ARC! Unfortunately, the publisher had different ideas… oh well.

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  7. I wonder if the author chose the title because of ‘The Bell Jar’, where the main character repeats ‘I am, I am, I am’ to the beating of their heart! Great post, looks like a really interesting read!

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  8. Pingback: Edinburgh Book Festival: Golden Hill by Francis Spufford | A Little Blog of Books

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