This is the first book I’ve ever picked up by Maggie O’Farrell, but it was so incredible that I’ve ordered in her earlier books so that I can read those, too. This book is subtitled “Seventeen Brushes with Death” which sounds grim, but actually turns out to be a brilliant conceit. Maggie O’Farrell tells her story as a series of essays, each concentrating on a near death experience. The first chapter, in which she encounters a murderer, is certainly one of the most gripping. In it, the author is just turned eighteen and is out hiking in a remote area on her own. She meets a man on the trail whose presence absolutely chills her, but she walks on by. A few minutes later, he has somehow gotten in front of her and cuts her off, lassoing her with the leather strap of his binoculars to look at some birds. Thinking quickly, she immediately ducks out of the strap and starts to babble loudly about how she’s expected at work, powerwalking down the hill toward the village. She reports the incident to the police, but they dismiss her as hysterical. Two weeks later, another young woman from the village is found strangled on the same trail – and all of this is recounted as a way to explain why the author is a bit spooked by the thought of hiking with her young daughter alone, and why to this day she doesn’t like to wear scarves or have anybody touch her neck.
Not all of the chapters are as edge-of the seat as the opening one. In one of them, she recounts some of the foolish decisions she has made in her life, like jumping off a high pier at night into the sea below, only to find herself stuck in an undertow, and utterly unable to detect whether she was swimming towards the surface or dragging herself farther under. Or when she was a child and ran into the street, straight into the path of a car.
She also juxtaposes the pernicious childhood disease that she survived against the life threatening allergies that her daughter has. Her writing is luminous and soul-searching, whether she’s recounting her childhood or reflecting on her adulthood. And I think the most amazing thing is how she turns each of her seventeen brushes with death into a jumping off point for an essay that examines life.
Also, the cover is very pretty, with the feather done in a shiny, coppery gilt.