“This Must Be the Place,” Maggie O’Farrell’s most recent novel, is the sort of splendid book that takes a reader by surprise. In that sensitive and well-ordered love story, O’Farrell displays a bold and ample heart, especially when it comes to the failings of each of her powerfully rendered characters, who seem to be floating purposelessly through their lives.
Maggie O’Farrell embraces her characters. She never belittles them; she chooses to recognize them for what they are.
The same must be said about her new book, in which O’Farrell sculpts her most powerful creation: herself. “I Am, I Am, I Am” is a memoir, one that carries the seemingly unsettling subtitle: “Seventeen Brushes with Death.”
But there is nothing unsettling about “I Am, I Am, I Am.” Like O’Farrell’s other works, her memoir is an exploration of past and present. It is also about hoping for a future. All together, it is a portrait of a “gauche, awkward middle child, nose too large, teeth growing in crooked, a stormy yet wary expression” coming of age.
Those 17 brushes with death that comprise the memoir are not presented chronologically. Sections carry the names of the body parts affected at different times during the author’s life. (Interestingly, the neck is used twice; the lungs three times.)
Some of O’Farrell’s brushes with death seem absolutely plausible: running too quickly into a busy street and being grazed by an oncoming car, barely avoiding a head injury from a truck as she bends over to protect a stray dog, experiencing complications during childbirth.
Other brushes with death seem the stuff of fiction: escaping from a would-be murderer who strangles his victims with the straps of his binoculars, being robbed along with her soon-to-be husband, machete at their necks, outside their Chilean hostel, volunteering to be the target for a blindfolded knife-thrower at a crowded music festival, confronting the ongoing anaphylaxis of her younger daughter.
Each of these brushes with death, O’Farrell realizes, have had a profound effect on her life. An airliner’s unexpected drop in altitude as she is running — again — from the life she thinks she wants frees O’Farrell to “start to write.” A blood test warranted because of her partner’s infidelity instead morphs into having a good friend accompanying her be tested for AIDS.
Halfway through “I Am, I Am, I Am,” Maggie O’Farrell admits to her mother: “I’m trying to write a life, told only through near-death experiences . . . It’s just . . . snatches of a life. A string of moments. Some chapters will be long. Others might be really short.”
And all of them are laced with the gloriously unaffected observations of an indisputable artist. Listen to the haunting recollection of an incident during the complicated birth of her son as O’Farrell remembers the man in beige scrubs who did nothing more than hold her raised hand: “I’d been a parent for about ten minutes when I met the man, but he taught me, with a small gesture, one of the most important things about the job: kindness, intuition, touch, and that sometimes you don’t need words.”
Perhaps, but then, Maggie O’Farrell’s words are always the unmistakable exception.
Steven Whitton is a retired professor of English.