The 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.