by Maggie O’Farrell
Why do I get Maggie O’Farrell and Margaret Forster mixed up? I suppose the names are somewhat similar, and perhaps their writing styles bear some resemblance. Anyway, this book – a memoir – is definitely by the younger writer, who is about 15 years younger than me (whereas Forster is almost 20 years older).
I’ve read at least one of O’Farrell’s novels. She has an easy style, and I think I will read more now. So that is at least one positive effect of reading this memoir. Actually, it is probably the only one. I read the book very quickly but I can’t say I enjoyed it.
The chapters are named for parts of the human body: Neck, Cranium, Abdomen etc. Each chapter purports to describe a ‘near-death experience’. I would prefer to call these ‘near misses’. There are 17 chapters, and at the outset I thought “surely one person can’t have had so many brushes with death”. Well – brushes perhaps, but in most cases these are not what I would call near death. Two (or three?) of the stories are of swimming exploits in which the author might have drowned – but didn’t. One is a case of amoebic dysentery contracted and treated in China. A couple of the experiences, it is true, are quite scary, involving people of evil intent who don’t manage to murder Maggie, but of whom the reader can well believe – as she does – that they might have done so. To my way of thinking, the only two experiences which are serious medical emergencies that could easily have resulted in the author’s death are the mishandled birth of her first child, and her childhood encephalitis.
OK, so much for the hype and my response to it. Now for the stories themselves. They are well told, and reveal (or appear to reveal) quite a bit about the author. She is engaging, often funny, sometimes tragic. But I still find myself thinking: so what? I could have written this kind of thing about my own life. OK, I wouldn’t have written so well, and I wouldn’t have found many readers, even assuming I could find a publisher (I wouldn’t). It seems to me that only the already-famous can write this kind of memoir. Plenty do, and sometimes it packs a punch(*). For me, this just doesn’t.
(*) For instance, John Updike’s Self-consciousness