"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. Life has spared me such unhappiness and I pray will continue to do so. I’ve sometimes heard it said that happiness is best understood in retrospect. One thinks: I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was happy. That doesn’t work for me. I was miserable for a long time and quite conscious of it." -- Lives Other Than My Own, p. 242.
In Lives Other Than My Own, Carrère describes the two deaths and how they affect the loved ones surrounding the dead person. He is deeply involved with his informants, and also describes his own reactions and relationships with those he writes about. Further, in the case of those who are still alive, he has them review his writing to be sure they will not be offended or feel he has invaded their privacy.
The early chapters of the book are very memorable: Carrère and his family are at a beach resort where the 2004 tsunami wipes out huge numbers of lives. Though a series of inadvertently lucky decisions saved his family, in the aftermath of the destruction he gets to know a couple whose 4-year-old daughter named Juliette has died. He tries to stay with them and help them hold up during the ordeal of finding her body and figuring out what to do. A very dramatic story of great pathos.
In a number of ways this book differs from other nonfiction: above all, it's not anything like journalism or history: it's entirely a personal account but it's mainly about "lives other than my own." In the second example, the death from cancer of Carrère's wife's sister, also named Juliette, he gets to know his subjects by hearing them out about the deaths. He writes of the way one of his subjects talked to him:
"It’s rather unusual to find yourself talking about not only your past but who you are, what makes you you and no one else, to someone you barely know. It happens in the early stages of an affair or in psychoanalysis, and it happened here with disconcerting ease." (p. 86).This is a book about France. In particular, both the dead woman and one of Carrère's main informants (Juliette's closest colleague) were both judges in Vienne, a small town in France. He describes the environment:
"Vienne, the subprefecture of the département of Isère, is a city of thirty thousand inhabitants, with Gallo-Roman ruins, a quaint historic district, a promenade lined with cafés, and an annual jazz festival in July." (p. 123).To portray Juliette's commitment and passion for being a fair judge, Carrère writes a great deal about French law and judicial practices, and their innovations in making the law more fair for victims of predatory lending practices -- mundane, but central to understanding them. Juliette's relationship with the surviving judge, who had also been a cancer sufferer in his past, is important, and above all, Carrère establishes a deep relationship to the survivor and provides a detailed biography of his suffering.
This is a wrenchingly sad book about parents losing a child and children losing a mother. As their mother is struggling for breath in the hospital, according to her wishes, the school-age daughters nevertheless participate in a school pageant where she had hoped to be. (Even more wrenching: the youngest is only 15 months old.) The author observes:
"I have been and still am a scriptwriter; constructing dramatic situations is one of the things I do, and a cardinal rule of the profession is not to be afraid of audacious excess and melodrama. Still, I don’t think I would ever have dared, in making up a story, to stage as shameless a tearjerker as a scene of two little girls dancing and singing at their school festival as their mother lies dying in the hospital." (p. 63).Ultimately, I liked the book. However, a mystery to me is where I heard of it. I don't remember why I bought this book or who recommended it. It's not new: published in English in 2011. A few days ago, I noticed it on my Kindle. Wondering about it, I found that I purchased it on June 26 in the early afternoon. I didn't buy any other books that day, I just went to meet a friend for coffee. So I went on and read it. Maybe it was on one of the lists by a fellow blogger who is participating in the ongoing blog event "Paris in July." I'm sharing this post with all those bloggers at the host site, "Thyme for Tea," owned by Tamara (link).
Text (other than quotes) in this post is copyright © 2019 by Mae at maefood dot blogspot.com. If you are reading this at another blog, it's been stolen.