The memoir is a genre rarely muddled with, predictable in its chronology. However, it is this precise, static formula with which Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am I Am I Am refuses to comply. Instead, in seventeen parts, O’Farrell dissects the contents of her life through a collection of scrapes with death, dancing between infancy and motherhood and the years scattered between. Incredibly she does so without losing the sense that this is a memoir, not a collection of short stories. We catch a fleeting glimpse of her future husband on a dirt road in Chile as the pair are stripped of their wallets at knifepoint, before being launched into a labour ward where, older, wiser, he stands and clasps O’Farrell’s hand in solidarity. The sinews that tie each story to the next are thin and faint, barely noticeable at all in fact, but they thread these snapshots into a larger portrait of O’Farrell’s life.
It seems, at first, a strange premise, to celebrate a life in its entirety by capturing the moments at which catastrophe passed by at a hair’s breadth. And yet, at the risk of cringing at my own philosophical musings, I suppose it is in those minutes that we feel most alive, or at least at which we are most thankful for the time we have had. As O’Farrell herself puts it, ‘we are, all of us, wandering about in a state of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when the axe may fall.’ Indeed, she writes with such elegance and dark wit that at some moments her prose appears to be a gleeful middle finger to the lingering grim reaper who skulks between her folded pages. Each chapter, each visceral record of fleeting death, is filled with troubles and trauma, a machete to the throat, a close shave with an oncoming lorry, the last moments of consciousness during a postpartum haemorrhage. Yet these brushes with danger highlight, rather perfectly, the spaces in between, of life lived.
The work, as a whole, reflects a starkly Irish attitude to death, one that we all, collectively, could learn from. We so often, in our English way, feel the need to shroud death, to lower our voices, to give the grieving space to “heal” and cut a wide berth around the conversation. Dying is, perhaps, the last taboo; a topic that can only be broached in hushed whispers with downturned eyes. We are ashamed of it; it is, after all, our Achilles heel in an existence bound in promises of forever. But there is a danger in this culture of silence and secrecy, it breeds a fear of loss amongst the youngest generations – a fear that sticks.
As children we rarely witness the grief of others. This is something that plays out behind closed doors, and, if we are lucky, we are raised without experiencing immediate loss, or at least its full force. So when the illusion of our immortality is shattered, usually with brute force, it can leave us stumbling.
I imagine many people, like me, can recollect this precise moment of impact.
The point at which we encounter death in some guise usually occurs somewhere between bouts of adolescent angst and the uphill trajectory of our twenties. For most, it’s a strange and uncomfortable feeling to come to terms with; for others it’s a debilitating nightmare and one that haunts them. I suppose this is because there is no comforting explanation that can rationalise it or diminish its power.
O’Farrell’s stark acknowledgement of death is a refreshing read in this sense. It doesn’t dole out self-pitying proverbs about lucky escapes; instead she acknowledges the madness of life, and death, and celebrates both with equal measure. It is a positive affirmation of the value of life that acknowledges, openly and honestly, it’s fleeting nature. As O’Farrell herself quotes Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar with earnest, ‘I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.’
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