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.