God always gets the best lines such as ‘before you were I am,’ that’s why he’s God. If you don’t do God, try some Sylvia Plath, ‘I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart, I am, I am, I am.’ I’d never heard of Maggie O’Farrell, didn’t know she existed until her name appeared on the front cover, plugging another book by a Scottish author, Damian Barr. I hadn’t heard of Barr either and for some reason I thought O’Farrell was Scottish too—she’s from Northern Ireland—but I always try to read the best Scottish writers that are not Scottish. I’ve hit enough bum notes to know O’Farrell is an exceptional writer, she is, she is, she is.
I loved this book for its simplicity and its truth. Good books always resonate with truth. This book jumps back and forward in time, in a naming game, identifying parts of the body. Chapter 1, or the first brush with death, ‘Neck’ (1990).
O’Farrell is eighteen and this is her first summer job, a break with the mundanities of normal life.
This day – and day in 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 machine, the toasters, where I sliced five large loaves of bread, filled the kettle, folded forty napkins into open-petalled orchids.
This is classic show, not tell. For anybody that’s worked in the service industry (Vera Clarke springs to mind) we know this is a small operation, forty isn’t a great deal of people, but enough to keep you busy. The beauty is in the pretension, napkins aren’t napkins, but orchids. The setup, here is equilibrium; the writer’s job is to destroy it.
But O’Farrell already does that. She leaps back to where the would-be killer lies in wait for her. The reader knows she escaped, ghost writing isn’t real. She begins with the confrontation, the killer first line, all novelists need to attract the reader’s attention and keep us close.
On the path ahead; stepping out from behind a boulder, a man appears.
So this autobiographical story is a thriller. All good stories ask questions.
He straddles the track with both booted feet and he smiles.
It’s the smilers that always get you. Why is the would-be killer smiling?
Jump backwards, (‘Lungs,’ 1988)
I have never cared for gangs, for social tribes, for fitting in. I have known since I was very young that the in-crowd isn’t my crowd; they are not my people.
Jump sideways, (Whole body,’ 1993)
I am here on my way to Hong Kong, because four months ago, I went to look for my degree results…In a year or so, I realise the mess I made of my finals was nothing of the sort, it will seem to me a merciful escape. What I wished I had known, aged twenty-one, as I cycled away from the results board towards the meadow by the river in Cambridge…is that nobody ever asks you what degree you got. It ceases to matter the moment you leave university.
Jump to the present day, (‘Daughter,’) and weep.
…you are reading the story of Persephone to your daughter and you can’t quite believe how pertinent it is, and you wonder what people knew of this then. You and your daughter turn to face each other wordlessly, absorbing the tale of the girl who ate six fateful seeds, condemning herself to the underworld, and the mother who fought to bring her back.
…She is, she is, she is.