My monthly reading challenges to Spell the Month in book titles has been a great way to approach my reading. However, it isn’t always easy coming up with titles for each of the letters. Especially as I’m trying to avoid buying too many books. I’ve already bought way more than I should have done. At the start of this month, I figured that April would be an easy task but I hadn’t thought about “i”. When it came down to it, I couldn’t think of an obvious choice for this letter that I already had a copy of. I don’t even know if I still have my childhood copy of I Capture the Castle. So, I decided to get myself a copy of this book because I’ve been wanting to read it for so long. The only problem was that I wasn’t a fan of the paperback cover that I found. So, I spent far too long trying to find a cheap copy of the cover I actually wanted. It’s beautiful, obviously, but I do hate how much of an issue I make things like this.
I’ve never read any of Maggie O’Farrell’s other books, so I wasn’t sure what to expect of her as a writer. I was only here for the concept because who can resist something like this? A memoir told through 17 occasions when the writer had a brush with death? It’s an irresistible premise and one that I’ve been meaning to read since before it came out. The fact that it took so long has everything to with my relationship with non-fiction and nothing to do with I Am, I Am, I Am. I think it takes a special kind of writer to make non-fiction really accessible and engaging. Particularly, if that non-fiction is autobiographical in nature. You need to be able to make the reader feel as though your life is worth reading about whilst also maintaining relatability and realism. It needs to be informal enough to be enjoyable but not too much in case it seems flippant. It’s definitely a tricky balancing act.
It didn’t take long for me to realise that Maggie O’Farrell was a good choice of writer for this kind of book. The way that she presents her life experiences and the effect they had on her life feels effortless. It rarely dragged as most of the stories are short and snappy. Only two chapters could be considered long and that’s because they are the two most significant brushes with death in her life. The first saw O’Farrell recounting her childhood illness and the second describes an incident involving her daughter. Both of these chapters are found at the end of the book and provide a massive change of pace. I understand why this happened but it felt like maybe a little too much of a juxtaposition. Perhaps if the two incidents had been split up and bookended the stories?
Still, this is certainly a captivating read. The subtitle “Seventeen Brushes With Death” is a good one but not always the best way to describe these events. A lot of them are perhaps better described as moments when O’Farrell came face-to-face with her mortality. The fact that the sections had different levels of severity certainly made the reading experience less stressful as I don’t think I could have coped reading about 17 near-death experiences. I think it’s definitely a positive as it made O’Farrell’s memoir easier to relate to. There are some moments of obvious tension, grief, and fear within these pages but there are also some slightly calmer moments. Some moments are more about automatically thinking the worst rather than actually being about to die. This also means that the book isn’t just one note all the way through. It’s not just a conveyor belt of awful things that have happened to the same woman. There is nuance and levels throughout these tales.
As much as I liked O’Farrell’s writing style, for the most part, I think there were times when the introspective surrounding each brush with death got a bit much. There was maybe a bit too much poetic licence or self-indulgence. I realise that as a writer, O’Farrell knows how to use words to conjure up imagery and, during the longer chapters, she got a little carried away with the flourishes for my liking. I’m also not a massive fan of the way the different sections were structured. I understand why the first story was put where it was. After all, you want to offer a huge bang straight out of the gate. However, the haphazard nature of the format just felt strange. You bounce around her life at different time periods and have spoilers for some sections before you read them. It’s not even as though they are structure according to body part or significance. It just doesn’t flow naturally.
Overall, this was a pleasant read and I started off really enjoying it. As the book moved on, my interest started to wane and I couldn’t bring myself to get excited about reading. That’s not to say that it wasn’t interesting or that it was boring. Quite the opposite. An awful lot happens in these pages but I just feel like something is missing. What do we really learn about her as a person? Maybe I’m missing something by not being aware of her beforehand but as the book went on I felt the gulf between reader and writer getting bigger. Some of these stories take you right to her innermost feelings and you experience her emotions with her. In others, it’s hard to relate to her retelling. Maybe there was a point to this but I didn’t get it. Still, I’m glad that I finally read it and will happily read more of her work in the future.