When I first picked up I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, Maggie O’Farrell’s 300-page memoir, at the end of April, I thought it would be a quick afternoon read, but I pretty quickly decided that this wasn’t going to be the case after the first couple of pages. This isn’t a bad thing though. O’Farrell’s memoir is a collection of essays that I needed to spend time with and properly digest over the course of a month. And while I rarely give out 5-star reviews, I felt that this memoir deserved the honor, specifically for the last two essays which struck me as incredibly powerful and personally relatable.
Each chapter in the book chronicles a moment from O’Farrell’s life that had a powerful impression on her awareness of her mortality — from fleeting moments swimming in the ocean to a brush with death after a childhood illness. I’ve never heard of a book structured solely around the author’s experiences with near death experiences and would have never thought to do so, but O’Farrell pulls it off well. This is also very much a memoir about travel and I loved reading about her interesting experiences traveling to far off places and somewhat reckless exploits. Together these recollections for an intimate portrait of just how fragile life can be, but also how to find meaning in seemingly endless chaos. You begin to understand O’Farrell’s need to explore the world around her more and more as the book continues on and she begins to explain some of her past childhood trauma.
The most powerful essays in the book are the last two, in which she talks about the experience of coping with a childhood illness that affected her cerebellum. Not only does she write about the isolation and confusion of being a dying child, but she also writes about the experience of the slow realization of death as a young person — something that I rarely see written about or represented well in literature. The final essay is just as powerful and brutally honest about the realities “of loving someone who could, at any moment, be snatched from you” (276). This section of the book was very very real for me and it made me think about my own experience as a young person living with a life-threatening medical condition and the way that it’s impacted those around me. Once again, it’s very rare that I see this experience written about well and I thought that she does an excellent job.