I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death

If you need a frank reminder of life's sometimes terrifying fortuity, look no further than Maggie O'Farrell's chill-inducing memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am. As its subtitle suggests, the 17 essays that compose the book recount in precise, unwavering prose the too-close encounters with death O'Farrell and her loved ones have experienced in her 45 years. Whether it's an ominous exchange with a man who might be sizing her up as a murder victim or the lifelong effects of a debilitating illness, O'Farrell's brisk stories slip effortlessly over the borderline that separates life from death and back again.

O'Farrell (2010 Costa Novel Award winner for The Hand That First Held Mine) relates more than one near-drowning, a confrontation with a machete-wielding robber in Chile and a life-threatening bout of dehydration caused by an amoebic parasite in China. The longest essay, "Cerebellum," is a painfully observant account of O'Farrell's bout of encephalitis in 1980, at age eight, what she calls "the hinge on which my childhood swung." The physical aftermath of the illness has made her life "a series of cover-ups, smoke-screens and sleights of hand."

The lucid prose is equal to the gravity of O'Farrell's concerns: "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," she writes. That's a near-perfect summary of the content of this sobering yet life-affirming book. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

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