Thursday, 4 January 2018

Maggie O'Farrell, 'I Am, I Am, I Am'

This is an account of Maggie O’Farrell’s 17 brushes with death, her own and those of her children.  Some of them would be seen that way by anyone – her own serious illness as a child, her own child’s severe anaphylactic shock – and some brought her close to death perhaps only in her own mind – a frightening encounter with a man who might have murdered someone else, being caught in a riptide, her mother almost, but not, slamming a car boot on her head – but all of them caused her to meditate on the closeness of death, mainly without fear. She suggests that once you have confronted the immediate possibility of dying, which she did aged eight when she contracted encephalitis, there is never again any cause to fear death. I think this is right. I had my own encounter with the Grim Reaper much later in life, in the form of an ectopic pregnancy when I was 38. Undiagnosed it would have killed me within hours (thank you my GP at the time, Dr Asghar), and in the two or three hours from first symptoms to emergency surgery I knew perfectly well what I was facing. There was no fear, and there has been none since, including when I was suspected of having oesophageal cancer two years ago (I haven’t).

She writes it interestingly, setting the scene for each encounter and then veering to another time and place in her life, and then back to the history that led to the encounter itself. In the process she tells what seems to be the whole of her life. I liked the way she describes the men in her life, briefly and obliquely, but tellingly and vividly. There is a lot of love in these stories.

Maybe this work will set a new trend, for an episodic picture of a life, on a theme, rather than straight autobiography.

I hope so.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Maggie O'Farrell, 'This Must Be The Place': a gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover

This is an accomplished work, and is the story of a man, Daniel Sullivan, a New Yorker who is a linguistics professor living in the wilds of Ireland, and his relationship, mainly, with his second wife Claudette. There is a shifting cast of other characters, and notably of children and adolescents. It is stupendously atmospheric in places, although a bit annoying as it jumps around in time and place, and, particularly if you put it down for a day or so, you have to remind yourself what time and place you are currently in. Two of the female characters, Teresa and Rosalind, are under-used, so that I wondered why they were even there. Some are dismissed too glibly "Maeve always did as she was told", and the second wife, reclusive ex-actor Claudette, becomes more and more perfect as the story goes on, so that I wanted to mess up her perfect face, or for her to actually do something WRONG for once. Also, the total recluse business - Claudette lives in a remote place and no one knows where she is; she also has a demonic Max von Sydow-like Swedish ex-lover who is her nemesis - would never have worked. Those people always have People, who Know Their Secrets. A tour de force, this, but I'm not sure I actually liked it all that much. And there are gaps in the story, but I can't even be bothered to go through it and identify them. I can though forgive a writer a lot if they quote, and use as a conceit, F. Scott Fitzgerald's "gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover".