'I Am, I Am, I Am' By Maggie O'Farrell Is A Gripping Examination Of Death & How It Changes The Way We Live

Photo of Maggie O'Farrell, courtesy of Murdo Macleod

Acclaimed novelist Maggie O'Farrell has spent her career actively avoiding autobiographical writing. When she signed a book deal to write a memoir, she only asked her publisher for £1, unsure that she would be able to write about her own life experiences, let alone share them with the world. But that is exactly what she has done.

"In a way, I feel you don't always choose the books," O'Farrell tells me over Skype from her home in Edinburgh, "the books choose you. Certainly that was the case with this book."

It may be the book she never planned to publish, but I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, out now from Knopf, seems to be the book O'Farrell was born to write. Told in non-chronological order and organized by body part — neck, abdomen, bloodstream, head, and so on — this breathtaking memoir weaves together the author's near-death experiences to create a fully realized picture of what it means to fully live a life. Each gripping vignette offers various levels of terror — one where she recounts her run-in with a murderer on an isolated hike will chill readers to the core, while others, like an near-drowning accident during a relaxing trip to the beach, will feel eerily familiar — but throughout the entire narrative, one thread remains the same: the overwhelming desire to live another day.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O'Farrell, $17, Amazon

In reliving each memory on the page, O'Farrell reaches back in time, sometimes to comfort her younger self, other times to offer words of advice or pieces of wisdom only age and experience can provide. At times, it feels like O'Farrell is almost coaching herself — and in turn, her readers — through life's most difficult and most terrifying moments, and that isn't entirely accidental. Inspired, at least in part, by her daughter, who was born with life-threatening allergies, I Am, I Am, I Am is O'Farrell's attempt to understand death, and how our brushes with it leave us transformed.

"You’ve got to make it OK for them," O'Farrell says of trying to explain the realities of a dangerous world to a young daughter whose mortality is never far from the family's mind. "You’ve got to try and explain to them what is happening and why: why they’re different, why they're in pain, why they look different, why these experiences are happening. In a way, the book for me is about how we carry on in the face of these big experiences, and also what happens to us and how we come back changed and different from every single one."

The stories in her memoir may be personal, but O'Farrell's experiences feel universally relatable. In exploring her own brushes with death and by confronting the challenges they accentuated — the challenges of young adulthood, of facing illness, of pregnancy and motherhood, of being human and susceptible to all kinds of hurt and pain — O'Farrell's memoir contemplates not just the frailty of life, but the fortitude of the human spirit in the face of it all.

"I think if there is a message in the book, it is that all of us have challenges in our lives. Some are more visible than others, or more dramatic than others, but all of us are living with something," O'Farrell says. "We all have to live the biggest and best life with whatever strictures we may have."

How exactly we are supposed to live fully realized lives isn't something I Am, I Am, I Am spells out for its readers. Unlike the novels she prefers to write, O'Farrell recognizes that real-life narratives aren't nearly as simple. "Fiction is neat. You can sew it up, you can make it balanced, you can make it perfect," O'Farrell says. "With a memoir, real life isn't like that. It is chaotic and messy, and it doesn't always answer all the question it presents."

"I think if there is a message in the book, it is that all of us have challenges in our lives. Some are more visible than others, or more dramatic than others, but all of us are living with something."

Memory makes it particularly hard to write a memoir with the neatness and clarity fiction allows, in part because it is no more fixed than our personalities are. O'Farrell believes we become many different people throughout our lives, in large part due to life's most unexpected challenges. "You’re the same person, but you will have changed," O'Farrell explains. "There will be many many different selves behind you, and also ahead of you."

To help reconnect with her past experiences, and her past selves, O'Farrell referred to the diaries she has kept most of her life. According to the author, the start of her memoir "appeared in the end pages" of her journals, but to fully flesh out each story, she used another technique: music. "Music is a very good way to instantly transport yourself to a time and a place. I can put on a particular track, and I can remember the texture of the coat I was wearing when I was 16," O'Farrell says. "It is just amazing, how evocative music is. It’s a very useful time-traveling vehicle."

"You’re the same person, but you will have changed, O'Farrell explains. "There will be many many different selves behind you, and also ahead of you."

Music wasn't the only artform that inspired O'Farrell while writing. As the title would suggest, I Am, I Am, I Am is, in part, inspired by Sylvia Plath's only novel and its most famous line, one O'Farrell calls "a cry for continuing existence." Although the word death is in the book's subtitle, O'Farrell's memoir is, at its core, about the life we live in between moments of near-death.

"The book is about the life lived around these moments, what can happen to us all. It is about knowing what is dear to us, why we need to stay, why we need to hold on to our lives," O'Farrell says. "There is a lot to live for, and we need to hang onto it. We need to stay."