Best for: Those who enjoy literary non-fiction and are not deterred by fairly grim subject matters.
In a nutshell: Author Maggie O’Farrell examines, with lovely prose, moments in her life that could have led to her imminent death.
“Crossing time zones in this way can bring upon you an unsettling, distorted clarity. Is it the altitude, the unaccustomed inactivity, the physical confinement, the lack of sleep, or a collision of all four?”
“To be so unheard, so disregarded, so disbelieved: I was unprepared for this. I also felt helpless, blocked in.”
“When you are a child, no one tells you that you’re going to die. You have to work it out for yourself.”
Why I chose it:
I was in a bookshop connected to a museum that focuses on health, and they were having a “Three for the price of two” sale. This one looked like an interesting third book.
I find books about health, illness, and death fascinating. Part of it is I’m sure, because of what I do for a living (even though I’ve moved, I’m still doing contract work related to mass fatality incidents), although I’d wager that perhaps that’s more of a correlation; the same thing in me that finds it interesting to think about how to handle a mass shooting is probably the same thing that makes me seek out books like this.
Although, to be fair to the author, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book quite like this one. Ms. O’Farrell is an amazing writer; she’s able to write in a way that walks right up to flowery without ever getting there. She chooses words that at times might be slightly more obscure than necessary, but not so often that it feels affected: it’s just how she writes, and it’s lovely to behold.
It’s also a great juxtaposition to such potentially dark subject matter: nearly dying.
Don’t be confused: this isn’t a book about seeing the light, floating above one’s body during surgery, or anything so mystical. Instead it’s the story of a woman who, at age eight, has encephalitis and nearly dies. After that, she has many other near-death experiences, and only a couple are related to the lasting affects of that illness.
She starts with an essay about the time she managed to avoid being murdered. But not all essays are as dramatic or dire – one involves a flight that goes awry but ultimately is fine (there are likely thousands of people who have had similar experiences), another, a juvenile mistake that any of us could see ourselves making. In fact, save for a couple of instances, I think some of the power in this collection of essays is how mundane some of her brushes with death are. Any of us may have experienced one or two of them; but seventeen? Holy shit.
The last two essays are the longest and most dramatic. The sixteenth brush with death is the story of O’Farrell’s childhood illness; the seventeenth is of her daughters severe chronic illness. See the perspective of an ill child from the child herself, and then as a mother witnessing it in her own child is extraordinarily powerful.