The Story of I AM, I AM, I AM
August 22, 2017
To celebrate the publication of Maggie O’Farrell’s extraordinary and unique memoir, I AM, I AM, I AM, Maggie’s long-term editor Mary-Anne Harrington draws on the parallels found in Maggie’s bestselling fiction…
For me, I AM, I AM, I AM is extraordinary chiefly as a story of a survival, and as a writerly triumph; a book full of the shock of the lonely knowledge that death might be close at hand that also manages to be full of humour, self-deprecation and love. But for any reader of Maggie’s novels, one of the most extraordinary pleasures of the memoir is spotting the connections with the fiction, the places where the two dovetail, the interplay between art and life. This short book is extraordinarily rich and I think readers will see something new every time they return to it, but here are a few parallels that really struck me.
THIS MUST BE THE PLACE – Maggie has written movingly about the way she drew on her youngest daughter’s experience of eczema in the creation of the character of Niall, and how in this novel she used the feeling of being uncomfortable in one’s skin to explore a way of being ill at ease in the world, which applies to pretty well all the characters in this novel. One of the things I particularly love about this book is its insight into the damage life tends to inflict over time and the wisdom and love with which most of the characters respond to it, which seems to pave the way for I AM, I AM, I AM.
THE HAND THAT FIRST HELD MINE – there is a starkness to the early sections of Astrid’s story in this book, as she reels from the shock and loss of self of early motherhood, particularly after a traumatic c-section, which forms a powerful counterpart to the ‘Abdomen’ and also the ‘Cause Unknown’ chapters of I AM, I AM, I AM. I’d not read anything quite like this in fiction before (the only thing that comes close, for me, is Megan Hunter’s THE END WE START FROM).
AFTER YOU’D GONE – this book is one of the quintessential explorations of love and loss, a book that completely undid me when I read it in my twenties and which retains all its rawness and power today. The pages of I AM, I AM, I AM are stalked by an impulsive, underfed, much younger Maggie, carving out a life for herself in London, who reminds me more than a little of Alice Raikes, the heroine of AFTER YOU’D GONE. Without giving too much away, Alice spends much of AFTER YOU’D GONE in a coma, which chimes with Maggie’s depiction of the childhood illness that left her paralysed in the ‘Cerebellum’ chapter of I AM, I AM, I AM, and the horror of being forced to watch life unfolding around you without being able to move or speak.
THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX – one of the less showy achievements of this book is its brilliant use of a child’s eye perspective, which is something Maggie carries over in to I AM, I AM, I AM. The Indian passages in ESME are beautifully of a piece with ‘Lungs: 2000’, and there’s a passage on a chilly Scottish beach where a young Esme nearly drowns only feet away from her oblivious family that I feel sure now must have been inspired by the experience Maggie describes as being turned head over heels, ‘like St Catherine in her wheel’, by an encounter with a riptide in the Indian ocean in her memoir. At a deeper level, ESME is a book about reclaiming the life of a woman who spends sixty years in an asylum for not fitting in, and I AM, I AM, I AM has a lot to say about not wanting to follow the crowd or conform. It’s this powerful assertion of the worth of the individual, in the face of the very worst that life can throw at them, that, for me, most powerfully connects these two books, and that beats like a steady pulse through all of Maggie’s writing.