“The Sensation of a Near-Miss”: Maggie O’Farrell, I Am, I Am, I Am

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Instead of an intimation of mortality, what is solidifying, taking root inside me, is something else, a welding together of this place with the sensation of a near-miss, an escape from something beyond my control. The feeling of having pulled my head, one more time, out of the noose becomes intermingled with, indivisible from, the mimosa trees, the goats, the wave that turned me over, the toasted-resin smell of cinnamon bark.

I don’t know what I expected, really, from Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am. Its subtitle is Seventeen Brushes with Death and the book offers exactly that and no more: seventeen vignettes about moments in O’Farrell’s life when it was (whether she knew it in the moment or not) a toss-up whether she would live or die–or, in the episode I found most difficult to read, whether her daughter would. She offers no larger framework, either of narrative or of meaning; the insight of the book is nothing more or less than what Doctor Lydgate offers Mr. Casaubon in Middlemarch: “one can hardly increase appreciably the tremendous uncertainty of life.”

Mr. Casaubon is, understandably, unconsoled by Lydgate’s remark. I didn’t pick up I Am, I Am, I Am looking for consolation–and a good thing, too, because if anything, it turned out to be a book finely calculated to exacerbate my everyday anxieties–but I did expect it would add up to more than it did. Its point is intrinsically episodic, I suppose: things happen, dangerous things, scary things, things that start out benign but take a sudden turn for the worse, and the more we realize that basic fact of our existence the more we can appreciate that we are–somehow, for now–still alive instead of dead. “We are, all of us,” O’Farrell observes,

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.

Her aim, I think, is just to breach that oblivion and thus to heighten our awareness of both the “tremendous uncertainty of life” and its potential for beauty and grace, which may themselves emerge from the shadow left as death once again recedes.

iam-iam-iam-2It’s inconsistent, I realize, to say that I found I Am, I Am, I Am disappointingly slight and to say that I’m also glad it did not fall into philosophizing. But my dissatisfaction and my relief actually go hand in hand: it’s hard to be profound, and books that try and fail seem worse, to me, than a book with fewer pretensions. That’s why I preferred Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal to Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Airthough of course I was moved by Kalanithi’s story and he writes much more poetically than Gawande. What O’Farrell sets out to do, she does beautifully, I thought: for once, I agreed with the blurbers who said they couldn’t put the book down, and that’s not just because a lot of the vignettes are quite suspenseful, like miniature thrillers. It was just a genuine pleasure to read O’Farrell’s prose. It’s not ornate or elaborate; its moments of eloquence, its shivery effects of fear or joy or release, come from its precise details–a smell, a touch, a word or phrase in just the right place. She nearly drowns swimming in the Indian Ocean:

I am aware, first, of being pulled sideways, as if on a sleeper train. The current is drawing into itself, gathering together, with abrupt and decisive force. I right myself in time to see the beach pulling away from me, like disappearing theatre scenery. . . .

The wave turns me over like an acrobat, like St. Catherine in her wheel. I feel my feet lift, feel my body invert, my head pooling with heat and pressure. There is a sharp blow to the side of my face and my eyes, shut tight against the salt, streak with technicolour, my teeth snapping together over my tongue. The noise inside a riptide is astonishing, a rushing, deafening rumble of water, air, pressure, force.

An armed robber in Chile holds his knife to her throat and she is “aware of the onion-tang of his armpits.” During a terrifying emergency c-section, when she “can feel hands rummaging through my innards, as far up as my ribs,” a man whose official role she never knows takes her hand as she lies engulfed in “loneliness, isolation, bafflement”:

His touch is infinitely gentle but firm and sure. There is no way he is letting go, he is telling me, entirely without words. He is going to stay right here and I am going to stay right here. I clutch at him with the force of a drowning woman.

“The people who teach us something,” she reflects about that incident,

retain a particularly vivid place in our memories. 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 even need words.

In the book’s final episode, as she and her husband frantically drive towards a hospital in Italy, all she can do is hold their daughter, who has had a severe allergic reaction:

The delicate features of her face are sunken, swollen, distorted. Her hands clutch mine but her eyes are rolling back in her head. I touch her cheek, I say her name. I say, stay awake, stay with us.

Her own brushes with death, terrifying as many of them are, have (in the telling, at least) an artistic distance wholly undone in this final chapter: the fear she has felt for her own life pales beside her desperation to preserve her child’s. Once she is a parent herself, she better understands how her own mother sometimes clung to her:

We’re on the platform of the local station, I have my backpack at my feet and the branch-line train is coming through the tunnel. I’m about to get onto it and I won’t be back for a long, long time. She doesn’t tell me not to go but the grip of her fingers on my shoulders is the same: heartfelt, insistent, infused with the awareness that I was always going to leave, that we both knew, on some level that the urge had always been in me.

Accidents, illness, evil: O’Farrell has faced, it seems, more than the average share of all of these, and that in itself makes her memoir interesting. As in her fiction, she moves deftly between past and present, in the larger structure of the book and within individual chapters; through these anecdotes of escaped fatality, we get many pieces of a more conventional memoir of her childhood, including her life-changing bout of encephalitis, her awkward growing up, and her discovery that writing is the work that will define her life and give it meaning. In many ways I Am, I Am, I Am reads like a fitting culmination of that story. Still, I can’t shake my own lingering sense that O’Farrell has left the book somehow incomplete–that she, and we, ought to learn more from all those near misses, or that she should have done more to earn our attention to them than just surviving or enduring. Yes, life is uncertain: now what? But at the same time I understand: there is no enveloping story to be told about it all. It just is. We just are, until we aren’t.

Weekend Reading: Two by Maggie O’Farrell

A friend recently mentioned that she’d been reading and enjoying Maggie O’Farrell’s novels, so the next time I was at the library I checked out two of them: Instructions for a Heat Wave and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. Both are essentially family dramas; both turn on long-held secrets and their repercussions, though in Instructions for a Heat Wave the consequences are mostly moral and emotional, while by the end of Esme Lennox two people have paid (in very different ways) with their lives. Both are very good–well written, evocative, psychologically astute, and thematically layered — but it’s Esme Lennox (both the novel and the eponymous character) that’s really going to stick with me.

Instructions for a Heat Wave follows its family members through a few fraught days during a grueling heat wave that hit Britain in 1976. Robert Riordan tells his wife he’s going out for the paper and then he doesn’t come back: his disappearance brings his children together again, face to face with each other and with an array of unresolved issues from their family history. O’Farrell uses the sweltering temperatures both literally and figuratively: the characters’ physical discomfort in the inescapably stifling heat matches their inner restlessness as the narrative shuttles us back and forth between their childhood memories and the complications of their current situations.

Instructions for a Heat Wave ends on a faint note of optimism: the novel’s ultimate revelations may be initially devastating, but as people’s secrets come out, healing seems possible — no harm is ultimately irredeemable. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, on the other hand, offers no such soothing hope: some wrongs, it suggests, can never be made right, at least not through forgiveness. The novel is a compelling blend of chilling and heartbreaking: as it takes us from Esme’s childhood to the present-day life of her grand-niece Iris, splicing in segments from the point of view of Esme’s sister Kitty, now suffering from Alzheimer’s, we gradually realize just how Esme came to spend 60 years confined to an asylum. One of O’Farrell’s sources is Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980; Esme’s story dramatizes the horrors of a society that conflates nonconformity with “hysteria” and madness, and punishes it accordingly.  I was a bit disappointed in the novel’s ending, but it’s a haunting story, both poignant and gripping.