France’s Emmanuel Carrère, filmmaker, novelist and biographer, attempts to hit fate below the belt in his latest effort, Lives Other Than My Own. Difficult to classify—it could be memoir, it could be fiction, it could be a treatise on compassion—Lives Other Than My Own presents stories of grief about people the author knows. We’re not talking about typical down-on-your-luck stories either; we are talking gut wrenching and life-altering stories of grief brought on by the cruelty of fate. Under the guide of Carrère’s nuanced prose, simultaneously journalistic and emotionally astute, you will journey through this book only to rise up out of your chair shaking your fists and screaming towards the heavens, “Why, fate, why?” by the turn of the last page.
Carrere opens this book with the tragedy of the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004. On vacation with his wife and their two boys in Sri Lanka, the hotel they are staying at is untouched by the disaster. Yet a couple, Jérôme and Delphine, they have befriended during their trip loses their four-year-old daughter, Juliette. As devastating as the summary of this loss sounds, Carrère’s style brings us to the edge of this loss to witness the irrefutable void of mourning:
A few dozen yards from us, in another bungalow, Jérôme and Delphine must be lying down as well, wide awake. He has taken her in his arms, or is that impossible for them as well? It’s the first night. The night of the day their daughter died. This morning she was alive, she woke up, she came to play in their bed, called them Mama and Papa, she was laughing, she was warm, she was the loveliest and warmest and sweetest thing on earth, and now she’s dead. She will always be dead.
While he lays forth the catastrophic circumstances of the tsunami, he questions his own ability to love and whether he has the strength to withstand grief and loss of this magnitude. Focusing mainly on the wake of disaster, these personal questions bring immediacy to the reader as to how we would react in these situations. As self-important as this may seem—chronicling the grief of someone else as an impetus for creativity and personal reflection—the reader can’t help but empathize with Carrère as a witness but also respect his compassion for his subjects as he does in this somber passage:
There we are, neat and clean, untouched, while around us cluster the lepers, poisoned by radiation, shipwrecked souls reduced to a savage state. 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.
After Carrère returns home from Sri Lanka, they are met with their own loss. Carrère’s wife, Hélène, loses her younger sister, also named Juliette, to cancer. Juliette leaves behind a dedicated, sweet and earthy husband and her three young daughters, the youngest only fifteen months. Through interviews with Patrice and Juliette’s friend and business colleague, Étienne, Carrère constructs the life of an ambitious, intelligent woman who was loved for her determination and fairness. What becomes most compelling about this story of loss is that it focuses mostly on Étienne, a fellow judge of Juliette’s, who was automatically drawn to her because of their physical handicaps. Etienne lost a leg and Juliette was unable to walk without crutches because of an earlier treatment of radiation that damaged the nerves in her spine.
It is clear that Carrère respects, and is somewhat mystified by, the strength and love Etienne and Patrice have for Juliette. Again, he questions his devotion to Hélène but realizes that after seeing Patrice lose the woman he had married, Carrère wants to grow old with Hélène. The story of Juliette’s cancer is brutal and takes up most of the book’s length. It does digress into the details of her work as a judge who protects clients from creditors but I am not convinced it is a necessary addition. It undermines the contemplative and somber tone set in the beginning by Carrère and takes it into the drier arena of legal mechanics.
Obviously, Carrère wants to highlight the seemingly limitless value of human connection with these two lives other than his own. The exploration of grief, shock and survival dominate the narrative while Carrère flounders for his own sense of worthiness as a person capable of offering emotional support and sustenance. He brings to light that none us truly know our limits until we have to face the death of our loved ones or our own mortality. This includes an emotional mortality that plagues some from the beginning which he purports that this emotional turmoil can develop into a life force of its own, namely cancer:
. . . but I do believe that certain people have been damaged at their core almost from the beginning and cannot, despite their courage and best efforts, really live. I also believe that one of the ways in which life, which wants to live, works its way through such people can be in disease, and not just any disease: cancer. That’s why I am so stunned by people who claim that we are free, that happiness can be decided, that it’s a moral choice. For these cheerleaders, sadness is in bad taste, depression a sign of laziness, melancholy a sin. Yes, it is a sin, even a mortal sin, but some people are born sinners, born damned, and all their courage and best efforts will not set them free.
There is a profundity and truth to many of the conclusions he draws from bearing witness to the pain of others. There is also a sense of self-exploration that deepens from his proximity to all this mourning.
As Carrère delves into grief head first, the reader has no chance to turn back. What doesn’t work for the reader is not the onslaught of damage and survival, but that the stories do not feel connected. It’s as if they should be two different books or tied together in a way that doesn’t come across so tonally different. Perhaps this was his goal in highlighting how loss can be different. There is the soul-numbing shock of sudden death as in Jérôme and Delphine’s case, or the grinding misery of a gradual loss as in Juliette’s case. The tonal shifts are so abrupt that the reader can’t help but feel they are reading two different books. Once we meet Étienne, we are taken into the world and history of someone who is still living, whose job inhabits part of Juliette’s story and whose presence is lively and vivid, almost a distraction from the loss of Juliette.
This is a powerful book filled with honest and beautiful passages that showcase Carrère’s abstract gift as a writer. Lives are disjointed, but the job of the writer is not to replicate life as is, but present a seamless version that appears as is. Rightly, he reminds us that loss takes the person away, but the survivor still carries them around in their own way and in a way that will metamorphose as they grow in life. And as Carrère points out in this apt quote from Céline, “The worst defeat in everything is to forget, and especially what did you in.”
A man’s country may be cramped or vast according to the size of
his heart. I’ve never found my country too small, though that isn’t
to say my heart is great. And if I could choose it’s here. . .
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