Maggie O’Farrell (2017) I Am I Am I Am. Seventeen Brushes with Death.

maggie o.jpg

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.




Jill Bialosky (2015 [2012]) History Of A Suicide my sister’s unfinished life.

history of a suicide

This book left me cold. I read an extract of the story of these sisters in The Observer a while back, one living and the other dead. I was intrigued.  I know what I’m supposed to feel. What I’m supposed to say. But it feels a bit like someone leaning over the garden fence and saying yada, yada, yada and I’m saying yeh, yeh, yeh. That’s true. You’re right. I wish I’d thought of that.

In the first act of J.B.Priestley’s An Inspector Calls stasis is undermined in this interchange:

GERALD [laughs]: You seem to be a nice well-behaved family –

BIRLING: We think we are –

In sum, we have the Anna Karenina principle. All happy families are alike. All unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. In ‘Opening Words’, each chapter is Bialosky’s book are bite sized, she draws her family in Cleveland in 1970 for the reader. Kim, who commits suicide is the youngest. Laura, Cindy and the author Jill are more than a decade older than their sister. Their father, a Jewish immigrant died when they were infants and their mother re-married an Irish Catholic. Kim father didn’t last. He’s the villain of the piece who left them in relative poverty, and also left their mother for another woman. Kim was lost baggage, left behind, but with her mother and three surrogate mothers in her elder sisters. She lacked a father figure to nurture her. It belittled her. Set her back in  ways that didn’t affect her sisters. I’m not sure why.  That’s one of the arguments the book makes. Jill finds confirmation in Dr Sheidman prognosis, an amateur Herman Melville fan and eminent sucidiologist who quotes Moby Dick to her:

There is no unretracing progress in this life…we do not advance through fixed gradations. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally.

As the Inspector says:

what happened to her then may have determined what happened to her afterwards, and what happened to her afterwards may have driven her to suicide. A chain of events.

I don’t have a problem with eternal ifs. Temporality, is always dateable. Jonathan Lear, in Radical Hope, quotes Heidegger – a time when. A time when Kim made her last phone call to her sister Jill. A time when Jill lost her baby in the first trimester. A time when Jill lost her second baby, snatched away from life. A time when Kim, with her mum sleeping upstairs,  shuts the garage door and starts the car engine. A time when the boy that’s being paid twenty dollars to cut the grass hears the car engine idling and opens the garage door to carbon monoxide. A time when two police officers stand at the foot of her mother’s bed and tell her there’s no hope. Her youngest daughter is dead.

I don’t have a problem with no hope and its causal link to suicide or even references to Sylvia Plath, Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, William Styron and Darkness Visible. It seems rather obvious. Those without hope seek a way out. Life gets in the way. But what I found myself doing was saying no.

Jill, for example, says, ‘I should have told her that I once loved a boy, too.’ She has an annoying habit of making statements like that and interjecting drama with the added clause, ‘too’. That would have saved her Inspector?

In ‘Last Dance’ as author she constructs a narrative. ‘In my mind’s eye…Kim…Dabbed her eyes with musk. Wore her favourite jeans and a sexy black top, convinced she would see Alan’.

Alan was Kim’s on-off boyfriend. He also killed himself. It’s part of the narrative, his death and her death. Romeo and Juliet. But I don’t buy it. It’s too pat. Life’s too messy.

‘But he wasn’t there. Not him. Not anyone. Longing consumed her.’ I find that very Mills and Boons.

‘Maybe someone leaned over the bar to talk to her.’ Maybe they didn’t, I interject.

‘Hey, you look cute. Wanna do a line in the bathroom?’

If an Inspector called how many suspects would he find with such bland conjecture? For every ‘maybe’ or ‘possibly’ I overwrite with maybe not. When history become a made-up story then is it history? Or something else? I’m unconvinced. Life is for the living. Perhaps that is the lesson of the Jewish Shiva mourning period. Perhaps that is the lesson of religion. I’m not sure. I’m never sure. Not in the grief-stricken way that Jill Bialosky is. I’m not sure. Not sure.