This is a hard book to classify–it’s a memoir, but not a typical one. In seventeen linked essays, each one relating a near death experience, O’Farrell explores the inherent tension between life and death, the push and pull of mortality, the randomness, fragility and beauty of existing as creatures who die.
It sounds vague and lofty, but it’s not at all. The prose is spare, poetic, and sharp. It’s not a linear memoir. O’Farell jumps around in time, relating various experiences, big and small, that have marked her through infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood. I was constantly amazed by the perfection of the craft on display. Not only was each section beautifully written and intricately structured, but the whole book was lush, open, precise. The story would not have been nearly as powerful if she had chosen to tell it chronologically. The structure of the book was part of what made it so good. It was messy, and though O’Farrell invited the reader to sink into that terrifying mess, the story moved ceaselessly forward. I never felt lost.
The subtitle, ‘Seventeen Brushes with Death’ is a bit of a misnomer, I think. Each section had a different weight; they were not all equal. Some were downright terrifying and others seemed almost innocuous, almost ordinary. O’Farrell doesn’t try to equalize these experiences, either. She simply writes about them all with clarity and grace. There’s an emergency cesarean section, a miscarriage, a terrifying encounter with a man on a remote countryside path as a teenager, a plane falling through the sky, getting an HIV test after discovering a partner was unfaithful, a machete held against her neck in Peru, the encephalitis that almost killed her as a child.
This diversity of experience is part of what made the book so good. Despite recounting the many terrible and terrifying things that have happened to her, there was no sensationalism. The book is not dramatic. If, like me, you’ve never had a machete held to your neck, it might be hard to imagine. But all of us come up against our mortality in so many smaller ways, all the time, whether it’s a near-miss in a car, or a miscarriage, or the fear that comes with being a woman alone in a unfamiliar place.
It’s the combination of all these moments that makes this book resonate. O’Farrell’s writing about the most terrifying moments in her life is moving, but so is her writing about all those almost-ordinary moments when she noticed the finiteness of her life. The book was never static or repetitive. It was a beautiful montage of all of those moments–tiny, massive, nearly unnoticed, unforgettable–when she was made deeply aware of herself as a body–a body that lived and could die, a fragile body, a body in danger, a body that could love and break. A mortal body.
While the heart of the book, for me, was about the way we experience mortality, and how that affects our lives, O’Farrell did a fantastic job weaving the trajectory of her own life into the narrative. Her childhood illness, her wandering, messy twenties, her various heartbreaks, motherhood–all of these defining experiences were sharpened by the way she framed them: through the lens of knowing how fragile and random life really is.
The book ends with a section about her daughter, who lives with severe, life-threatening allergies. That section was especially moving, because it brought the whole book together. It is not just our own mortality that defines us, but the mortality of those we love. We brush up against death not only when our own bodies are in danger, but when the bodies of those we love are in danger.
I Am, I Am, I Am is grounded in the physical. The imagery was breathtaking; the sentences sizzled. I was deeply aware, as I read, of my own body–its edges, its pains and pleasures, the fact of it in the world, the fact that it will not remain in the world as something that breathes, thinks, laughs, weeps, swims. Though dark at times, the book felt mostly like a celebration–not just of life itself, but of the specific ways we experience life as embodied creatures. It was a celebration of the moments–fleeting, scary, perfect–that make up our lives.