This book can only be described as beautiful. The words heart-breaking, the sentences haunting, the image built washed in sadness, but also with a precise understanding of human emotion. If there’s any book that forces you to think about your place in this world in relation to others, to think of life and death, of grief and loss, of happiness and contentment; it is this one written by Emmanuel Carrère (and translated by Linda Coverdale).
Other Lives But Mine is a creative non-fiction novel, and I’ll let Carrère tell you in his own words what it’s about:
Every day for six months I deliberately spent several hours at the computer writing about what frightens me the most on this earth: the death of a child for her parents and the death of a young woman for her husband and children. Life made me a witness to those two misfortunes, one right after the other, and assigned me – at least that’s how I understood it – to tell that story.
I was instantly drawn in by the first part of the book which takes place in December 2004. Carrère and his girlfriend Hélène are on holiday in Sri Lanka with their respective sons. By sheer chance, on the catastrophic morning of the now infamous tsunami, they decide to remain at their cliff-top hotel instead of going down to the beach. A halfhearted decision that saves their lives. Juliette, the four year old daughter of a young couple they had recently befriended, was playing at the water’s edge when the wave hit.
Only yesterday evening they were like us and we like them, but something happened to them and not us, so now we belong to two separate branches of humanity.
Her death and those of thousands around them is a highly sobering event, causing Carrère to reflect on his own life (the night before the wave, he and Hélène had talked about separating). The cold stare of death and the courage of others through adversity allows them to find a new, deeper appreciation for one another. His description of the chaos that ensued and of the conflicting yet honest human emotions experienced post-disaster is truly mesmerising:
Shortly after their return from Sri Lanka, Carrère is once again witness to death; this time, of his girlfriend’s sister (also Juliette) to cancer. At just 32, she left behind a husband and three small children. Juliette had already suffered from cancer as a teenager, the treatment leaving her with one paralysed leg and the other partially so. Despite this setback she went on to succeed, graduating from law school to become a ‘good’ judge on a defiant pursuit of justice.
Juliette and her family live in a small French town called Rosier, living a life that is stripped back to basics. A life in Rosier was ‘life as it appeared in TV ads, average in all things, devoid not only of style but also of the sense that style might be something to strive for.’ It is a life that Carrère readily admits he does not want but recognises that choosing to live there is to choose love.
It is after her death that Carrère decides to start writing this book, first interviewing her close friend and fellow judge, Étienne (who has also lost a leg to cancer), and then her husband, Patrice. This is the part where I felt the book faltered. We spend a lot of time focusing on Étienne’s life and work and in trying to explain how together they were greats judges, I felt Carrère focused too much on the legal details and duly got bored. That’s the only time that I put the book down.
It’s probably worth mentioning that this book can be classed as metafiction because quite a bit of space is spent discussing the writing process and the actual text itself, almost as if to justify its authenticity or indeed Carrère’s credibility as a narrator. He is incredibly open about bits of the book that he considered leaving out or sought approval from his subjects before publishing. This whole project appears to be almost cathartic.
Juliette’s courage in the face of death and the courage of little Juliette’s parents to go on after the tsunami gives a real insight into human resilience and into the nature of love and acceptance. Carrère always found himself lacking and I suppose what he is ultimately trying to explain to us is that these two deaths have taught him how to love and be loved in return. Seeing Juliette on her death bed in Patrice’s arms is enough for him to know that her life has been a success.
This book is a contemplation on mortality and by extension, the strength of the connections we make with other humans while we are alive. There’s a line that Carrère reads from his hotel magazine in the aftermath of the tsunami that stuck with me: “If we knew how vulnerable it makes us, we’d never dare to be happy”, a sentiment he says does not concern him as he has never dared to be happy. Makes you think…
Although distracting in sections there are parts of this book that are, to quote a reviewer, ‘sheer brilliance’. The writing is unadorned, simple; yet it is searing. Carrère is certainly one to look out for. Will definitely look to reading some of his other titles.