A woman’s striking and unexpected foray into near-death experiences.
What happens to us when we near death? When the decisions we have made bring us to the moment when it might be too late to look back and change our minds? These are two of the many questions O’Farrell (This Must Be the Place, 2016, etc.) explores as she embarks in a memoiristic exercise in writing down, archiving, anthologizing, and understanding all the instances in which she almost lost her life. Written in nonchronological order, the stories are organized by body parts. For example, in “Neck: 1990,” the author remembers a dark and eerie evening walking back to the cottage where she worked and stumbling upon an all-too-familiar man. “I have an instinct for the onset of violence,” she writes, “I seemed to incite it in others for reasons I never quite understood.” The man made her strap a pair of binoculars around her neck to watch the ducks. Nothing happened to her that night, but a different woman was later found strangled by a pair of binoculars, allegedly by the same man. The tales that follow this opener involve much more intensely medical experiences, such as the nasty strain of amoebic dysentery O’Farrell caught in China (“the amoeba was winning…I was ready to die, to abandon the fight. It was easier than staying alive”) or a life-changing neurological illness that modified, at a very young age, the rest of her life. The author also tells the stories of her multiple—at times unsuccessful—pregnancies. Throughout, the narrative is compelling and visceral; O’Farrell knows how to draw in readers. Perhaps the only downside to the book’s organization is that because the stories aren’t in chronological order, some of them feel repetitive, as the author occasionally provides redundant context about the events in her life.
An intriguing and mostly engaging collection of life-threatening stories.