Seventeen Brushes with Death
An extraordinary memoir--told entirely in near-death experiences--from one of Britain's bestselling novelists, for fans of Wild, When Breath Becomes Air, and The Year of Magical Thinking.

We are never closer to life than when we brush up against the possibility of death.

I Am, I Am, I Am is Maggie O'Farrell's astonishing memoir of the near-death experiences that have punctuated and defined her life. The childhood illness that left her in the hospital for nearly a year, which she was not expected to survive. A teenage yearning to escape that nearly ended in disaster. An encounter with a serial killer on a remote path. And, most terrifying of all, an ongoing, daily struggle to protect her daughter from a condition that leaves her unimaginably vulnerable to life's myriad dangers.

Seventeen discrete encounters with Maggie at different ages, in different locations, reveal a whole life in a series of tense, visceral snapshots. In taut prose that vibrates with electricity and a restrained emotion, O'Farrell captures the perils running just beneath the surface, and illuminates the preciousness, beauty and mysteries of life itself.

Excerpt

NECK

1990

 
On the path ahead, stepping out from behind a boulder, a man appears.

We are, he and I, on the far side of a dark tarn that lies hidden in the bowl-curved summit of this mountain. The sky is a milky blue above us; no vegetation grows this far up so it is just me and him, the stones and the still black water. He straddles the narrow track with both booted feet and he smiles.

I realise several things. That I passed him earlier, farther down the glen. We greeted each other, in the amiable yet brief manner of those on a country walk. That, on this remote stretch of path, there is no one near enough to hear me call. That he has been waiting for me: he has planned this whole thing, carefully, meticulously, and I have walked into his trap.

I see all this, in an instant.

*

This day—a day on which I nearly die—began early for me, just after dawn, my alarm clock leaping into a rattling dance beside the bed. I had to pull on my uniform, leave the caravan and tiptoe down some stone steps into a deserted kitchen, where I flicked on the ovens, the coffee machines, the toasters, where I sliced five large loaves of bread, filled the kettles, folded forty paper napkins into open-petalled orchids.

I have just turned eighteen, and I have pulled off an escape. From everything: home, school, parents, exams, the waiting for results. I have found a job, far away from everyone I know, in what is advertised as a “holistic, alternative retreat” at the base of a mountain.

I serve breakfast, I clear away breakfast, I wipe tables, I remind guests to leave their keys. I go into the rooms, I make the beds, I change the sheets, I tidy. I pick up clothes and towels and books and shoes and essential oils and meditation mats from the floor. I learn, from the narratives inherent in possessions left strewn around the bedrooms, that people are not always what they seem. The rather sententious, exacting man who insists on a specific table, certain soap, an entirely fat-free milk has a penchant for cloud-soft cashmere socks and exuberantly patterned silk underwear. The woman who sits at dinner with her precisely buttoned blouse and lowered eyelids and growing-out perm has a nocturnal avatar who will don S&M outfits of an equestrian bent: human bridles, tiny leather saddles, a slender but vicious silver whip. The couple from London, who seem wonderingly, enviably perfect—they hold manicured hands over dinner, they take laughing walks at dusk, they show me photos of their wedding—have a room steeped in sadness, in hope, in grief. Ovulation kits clutter their bathroom shelves. Fertility drugs are stacked on their nightstands. These I don’t touch, as if to impart the message, I didn’t see this, I am not aware, I know nothing.

All morning, I sift and organise and ease the lives of others. I clear away human traces, erasing all evidence that they have eaten, slept, made love, argued, washed, worn clothes, read newspapers, shed hair and skin and bristle and blood and toenails. I dust, I walk the corridors, trailing the vacuum cleaner behind me on a long leash. Then, around lunchtime, if I’m lucky, I have four hours before the evening shift to do whatever I want.

So I have walked up to the lake, as I often do during my time off, and today, for some reason, I have decided to take the path right around to the other side. Why? I forget. Maybe I finished my tasks earlier that day, maybe the guests had been less untidy than usual and I’d got out of the guesthouse before time. Maybe the clear, sun-bright weather has lured me from my usual path.

I have also had no reason, at this point in my life, to distrust the countryside. I have been to self-defence lessons, held at the community centre in the small Scottish seaside town where I spent my teens. The teacher, a barrelshaped man in a judo suit, would put scenarios to us with startling Gothic relish. Late at night and you’re coming out of a pub, he would say, eyeing us one by one from beneath his excessively sprouting eyebrows, and a huge bloke lunges out from an alleyway and grabs you. Or: you’re in a narrow corridor in a nightclub and some drunk shoves you up against a wall. Or: it’s dark, it’s foggy, you’re waiting at the traffic lights and someone seizes your bag strap and pushes you to the ground. These narratives of peril always ended with the same question, put to us with slightly gloating rhetoric: so, what do you do?

We practised reversing our elbows into the throats of our imaginary assailants, rolling our eyes as we did so because we were, after all, teenage girls. We took it in turns to rehearse the loudest shout we could. We repeated, dutifully, dully, the weak points in a male body: eye, nose, throat, groin, knee. We believed we had it covered, that we could take on the lurking stranger, the drunk assailant, the bag-snatching mugger. We were sure we’d be able to break their grip, bring up our knee, scratch at their eyes with our nails; we reckoned we could find an exit out of these alarming yet oddly thrilling synopses. We were taught to make noise, to attract attention, to yell, POLICE. We also, I think, imbibed a clear message. Alleyway, nightclub, pub, bus-stop, traffic lights: the danger was urban. In the country, or in rural towns like ours—where there were no nightclubs, no alleyways and no traffic lights, even—things like this did not happen. We were free to do as we pleased.

And yet here is this man, high up a mountain, blocking my way, waiting for me.

*

It seems important not to show my fear, to play along. So I keep walking, keep putting one foot in front of the other. If I turn and run, he could catch up with me in seconds and there would be something so exposing, so final about running. It would uncover to us both what this situation is; it would bring things to a head. The only option seems to be to carry on, to pretend that this is perfectly normal.

“Hello again,” he says to me, and his gaze slides over my face, my body, my bare, muddy legs. It is a glance more assessing than lascivious, more calculating than lustful: it is the look of a man working something out, planning the logistics of a deed.

I cannot meet his gaze, I cannot look at him directly, not quite, but I am aware of narrow-set eyes, a considerable height, ivory-coloured incisors, fists gripping his rucksack straps.

I have to clear my throat to say, “Hi.” I think I nod. I turn myself sideways so as to step past him: a sharp mix of fresh sweat, leather from his rucksack, some kind of chemical-heavy shaving oil that seems distantly familiar.

I am past him, I am walking away, the path is open before me. He has, I note, chosen for his ambush the apex of the hike: I have climbed and climbed, and it is at this point that I will start to descend the mountain, to my guesthouse, to my evening shift, to work, to life. It’s all downhill from here.

I am careful to use strides that are confident, purposeful, but not frightened. I am not frightened: I say this to myself, over the oceanic roar of my pulse. Perhaps, I think, I am free, perhaps I have misread the situation. Perhaps it’s perfectly normal to lie in wait for young girls on remote paths and then let them go.

I am eighteen. Just. I know almost nothing.

I do know, though, that he is right behind me. I can hear the tread of his boots, the swishing movement of his trouser fabric—some kind of breathable, all-weather affair.

And here he is again, falling into step beside me. He walks closely, intimately, his arm at my shoulder, the way a friend might, the way I walked home from school with classmates.

“Lovely day,” he says, looking into my face.

I keep my head bowed. “Yes,” I say, “it is.”

“Very hot. I might go for a swim.”

There is something peculiar about his diction, I realise, as we tread the path together with rapid, synchronised steps. His words halt mid-syllable; his rs are soft, his ts over-enunciated, his tone flat, almost expressionless. Maybe he’s slightly “touched,” as the expression goes, like the man who used to live down the road from us. He hadn’t thrown anything out since the war and his front garden was overrun, like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, with ivy. We used to try to guess what some of the leaf-draped objects were: a car, a fence, a motorbike? He wore knitted hats and patterned tank tops and too-small once-smart suits that were coated with cat-hair. If it was raining, he slung a bin liner over his shoulders. Sometimes he would come to our door with a zipped bag full of kittens for us to play with; other times he would be drunk, livid, wild-eyed and ranting about lost postcards, and my mother would have to take him by the arm and lead him home. “Stay there,” she would say to us, “I’ll be back in a tick,” and she’d be off down the pavement with him.

Maybe, I think, with a flood of relief, that’s all this means. This man might be like our old neighbour: eccentric, different, now long dead, his house cleared and sanitised, the ivy hacked down and burnt. Perhaps I should be kind, as my mother was. I should be compassionate.

I turn to him then, as we walk together, in rapid step, beside the lake. I even smile.

“A swim,” I say. “That sounds nice.”

He answers by putting his binocular strap around my neck.
Publisher: Knopf Canada