This memoir is told using the unique narrative structure of seventeen brushes with death, each chapter heading shows an anatomical sketch of an organ of the body and the year it was affronted, a pattern that isn’t chronological, more like a jigsaw puzzle, that as we read, begins to reveal more of itself as each experience is understood.
Warnings and Wake Up Calls
I thought it was brilliant and I Am as much in awe of how it’s been put together, as I Am of the insights she shares as each brush has its impact and adds to her knowledge of the body, mind and her own purpose in being here.
The first encounter is thriller-like and anyone who’s ever felt their inner warning system go off when in the presence of a would-be predator, will recognise the signs and shake their heads at the response she gets when trying to report the event to the police.
That going over the conversation afterwards thing, wondering what else she could have said for there to have been a different outcome.
How could I have articulated to this policeman that I could sense the urge for violence radiating off the man, like heat off a stone?
It occurs to me that we humans have more lives than cats, these brushes with death can occur without us even realising. It will make you pause and think back to some of those near misses you too might have had.
Others, like the first one she shares are pushed down so deep, never again mentioned, except that one time, when it was necessary to make someone understand, to accept a necessary attitude and behaviour change.
It is a story difficult to put into words, this. I never tell it, in fact, or never have before. I told no one at the time, not my friends, not my family: there seemed no way to translate what had happened into grammar and syntax.
Some stories/brushes forewarn of another that is still to come in the narrative, so that in this way, there is an invisible thread connecting them, we come to an encounter later in the text, having already been made aware of some of the underlying facts that have formed this life.
Drowning In Life, Travel An Escape
A near drowning at sixteen is as much about the inclinations, boredom and despondency of adolescence, as it is about the consequence of having lost a sense of direction underwater.
It is all these things and more that propel me to my feet. At sixteen you can be so restless, so frustrated, so disgusted by everything that surrounds you that you are willing to leap off what is probably a fifteen-metre drop, in the dark, into a turning tide.
A Latin class school trip to Rome and Pompeii at seventeen was a turning point O’Farrell describes as being like receiving a blood transfusion, the assault on all the senses of the sights, sounds, tastes, the contrast to what was familiar so great, it was painful to consider leaving.
It was the beginning of a love affair with travel and gave a focus to her innate restlessness, a way to satisfy it, the only thing besides writing that can meet and relieve it.
A Cure For Prejudice, Bigotry and Narrow-Mindedness
She quotes Mark Twain, who after travelling around the Mediterranean said that travel was ‘fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness’ and tells us that neuroscientists have for years been trying to understand what it is about travel that alters us, effects mental change.
Professor Adam Galinsky, an American social psychologist who has studied the connection between creativity and international travel, says that ‘Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms.
One of the most gripping chapters for me was the second to last, CEREBELLUM 1980, when a headache that becomes a significant marker on her life path, a period of hospitalisation and subsequent rehabilitation and re-education as she recovers from encephalitis, a debilitating inflammation of the brain probably caused by a virus resulting in muscular atrophy, a long period of immobility and several ongoing, invisible side-effects.
Apart from the more obvious physical issues, enduring a chronic condition also had a kind of mystical quality. The way she writes of convalescence, where weeks slide by without your participation, ironically, has some resonance with what we are experiencing with lockdowns/confinement.
Fever, pain, medicine, immobility: all these things give you both clarity and also distance, depending on which is riding in the ascendant.
A Fear Of Fearlessness
The insight that really stood out though, was the development of, and her living in a state, of fearlessness.
Coming so close to death as a young child, only to resurface again into your life, imbued in me for a long time a brand of recklessness, a cavalier or even crazed attitude to risk. It could, I can see, have gone the other way, and made me into a person hindered by fear, hobbled by caution. Instead, I leapt off harbour walls. I walked alone in remote mountains. I took night trains through Europe on my own, arriving in capital cities in the middle of the night with nowhere to stay.
These insights were so remarkable and familiar to me, when I reflect on the way my daughter lived her life, that they help me understand something I was so fearful of myself, her fearlessness and familiarity with death, and her artistic conversation with it.
It was not so much that I didn’t value my existence but more that I had an insatiable desire to push myself to embrace all that it could offer. Nearly losing my life at the age of eight made me sanguine – perhaps to a fault – about death. I knew it would happen, at some point, and the idea didn’t scare me; its proximity felt instead almost familiar. The knowledge that I was lucky to be alive, that it so easily could have been otherwise, skewed my thinking.
Fortunately for us Maggie O’Farrell lived far enough into her life for this thinking to change, the birth of a child is magical in so many ways, her indifference stopped the minute she became a mother. And then even greater challenges would arrive, situations that the life she had lived until then, unwittingly had been preparing her for.
If you are aware of these moments, they will alter you. You can try to forget them, to turn away from them, to shrug them off, but they will have infiltrated you, whether you like it or not.
A work of incredible merit, highly recommended.
And then there is Hamnet.