Maggie O'Farrell – Life & Books: Background information when reading I Am, I Am, I Am

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I Am, I Am, I Am

Seventeen Brushes with Death

by Maggie O'Farrell

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell X
I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2018, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2019, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite
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About this Book

Maggie O'Farrell – Life & Books

This article relates to I Am, I Am, I Am

Print Review

Maggie O'Farrell was born in Northern Ireland in 1972 and grew up in various locations across Wales and Scotland. When she was just eight she contracted encephalitis, an experience she describes in a chapter called "Cerebellum (1980)" in her memoir, I Am I Am I Am. The illness did long term damage, leaving her physically weak and sometimes unstable, and likely brought on neurological traits of unease, oversensitivity and dissatisfaction.

Despite this major childhood trauma, O'Farrell returned to school and attended Cambridge University, studying English before embarking on a career as a journalist. She published her debut, After You'd Gone, in 2000, and is now the author of seven highly acclaimed novels.

In her memoir, I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, O'Farrell creates vivid snapshots from her life, based on numerous near-death experiences, but there are only a few references to her successful career as an author. Readers curious to map O'Farrell's literary output to the incidents described in her memoir may find the following chronology of interest:


After You'd Gone After You'd Gone (2000) is the story of Alice Raikes, a 29 year-old woman who, after a mysterious trip to Edinburgh, is knocked down by a car in London and slips into a coma. With Alice in hospital, the unconventional narrative moves across three generations of women in Alice's family and multiple points of view to create a story based on family secrets, illicit affairs and links to terrorism. After You'd Gone won the Betty Trask Award for a first novel.

In I Am I Am I Am, the story "Lungs (2000)" describes O'Farrell being caught in a rip-tide.


My Lover's Lover My Lover's Lover (2002) appears at first to be a straightforward romantic novel, as Londoner Lily meets architect Marcus and very soon moves in with him. But Lily occupies the room of Marcus's ex-girlfriend Sinead, and Marcus' strange reluctance to talk about Sinead or where she is, becomes a growing concern.

In I Am I Am I Am, "Neck (2002)" describes a knife attack in Chile. Then in "Birth (2003)," O'Farrell has her first child and in "Cause Unknown (2003)" she describes a frightening experience while breastfeeding in France.


The Distance Between Us The Distance Between Us (2004) is set in Hong Kong, London and northern Scotland, where her two seemingly separate protagonists, Jake Kildoune and Stella Gilmore connect. Moving through time and memory and swirling with family secrets and mystery, The Distance Between Us won a Somerset Maugham Award, given by the Society of Authors. O'Farrell references this novel in her memoir, I Am I Am I Am, as one of the few times she has used her own life experience directly in a novel.

In I Am I Am I Am, "Baby and Bloodstream (2005)" is concerned with a series of miscarriages and fertility struggles.


The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2008) tells the story of Ivy Lockhart, a young woman who out of the blue discovers that she has a great-aunt she has never heard of. The aunt, Esme, has been confined in Cauldstone Hospital, a mental institution, for over sixty years. Now the hospital is closing down and Ivy finds herself opening her home to Esme Lennox and the family secrets that were isolated with her in Cauldstone.


The Hand That First Held Mine The Hand That First Held Mine (2010) takes place in London and deals with two stories and sets of characters separated by half a century, although connected in ways that are revealed as the stories progress. In the 1950s, Lexie Sinclair finds herself and her purpose in Soho, while in present-day London, thirty-something artist Elina struggles to adapt to motherhood. O'Farrell won the 2010 Costa Novel Award for the novel.

In I Am I Am I Am, in "Lungs (2010)," O'Farrell describes traveling with her family to Zanzibar and surviving a near-drowning experience.


Instructions for a HeatwaveInstructions for a Heatwave (2013) is set in Britain in 1976, the year, as the title suggests, of an unusual heatwave in that country. It's the story of the Riordan family – of Gretta, whose husband of forty years has disappeared, and of their grown up children who dash home at this point of crisis, but bring their own life problems and challenges with them. This novel was long-listed for the Dublin Literary Award and shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award in 2013.


This Must Be The Place This Must Be The Place (2016) is a memorable love story between the unlikely pairing of New Yorker Dan and his wife Claudette, a reclusive movie star living in the wilds of Ireland. O'Farrell chooses to tell their story from a range of characters' perspectives and moves forward and backward in time before revealing the full picture of their past and future - together and/or apart.

In I Am I Am I Am, the chapter "Daughter (Present Day)" describes O'Farrell's love for her daughter and the particular care she has needed since her birth. Mapping the events outlined in the memoir with O'Farrell's literary achievements makes it clear that between the birth of her son in 2003 and the present day of the memoir in 2017, Maggie O'Farrell has created a highly acclaimed volume of work while struggling with repeated miscarriages and the illness of a much-loved child – an incredible achievement.


O'Farrell is married to novelist William Sutcliffe. The couple met at Cambridge University and currently live in Edinburgh with their three children.

Article by Kate Braithwaite

This "beyond the book article" relates to I Am, I Am, I Am. It originally ran in April 2018 and has been updated for the March 2019 paperback edition.

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