Emmanuel Carrere has been desperate to get a break from being Emmanuel Carrere — if not in life than certainly in his writing.
In his memoir, My Life as a Russian Novel, the despondent French novelist told how he tried to disappear into one book project after another — only to run smack into his personal demons in each.
And so it was hardly a surprise when Carrere's memoir turned into a hysterical demonstration of this problem. A book nominally meant to center on his family's secret history wound up focusing quite a bit on the author's colorful sex life.
Let's just say you won't think of trains the same way after reading it.
Lives Other Than My Own is Round 2 in this quest of authorial sublimation. And at the very least one can say Carrere has achieved his wish — he is not the story, not even close.
But this is a minor victory in a book that contains a major one. No matter how often you've heard the cliche about how redemptive telling one's story can be, Lives Other Than My Own will make you feel, as if for the first time, how costly it can be to learn this wisdom firsthand.
The book begins on a beach in Sri Lanka on Dec. 26, 2004, the day the ravaging Indian Ocean tsunami hit, wiping out tens of thousands of lives. Carrere was there vacationing with his partner, and on a fluke of timing they are away from the deadly beach.
But their friends, Delphine and Jerome, are not, and Carrere witnesses the awful spectacle of a couple discovering that their daughter has been swept out to sea.
Carrere winds back the clock, novelistic style, to describe how his friends' family decided to come to Sri Lanka at all, turning a faraway island into a second home. Telescoping out and then back in to the trauma, he reveals the way such a disaster can feel like the sudden revelation of a fate for which one was always destined.
From this loss, Carrere moves into a story about the aftermath of another death — this time, the death of his partner's sister, Juliette, at age 33, to cancer. As with the tsunami, we know the outcome at once, and by retelling the story to us in the voices of those who watched, Carrere presents it again with its awful weight and consequence.
Juliette was a judge, a particularly fierce one within the French legal system, where she railed away on behalf of the rights of the weak. She had dodged cancer once before, when she was a teenager, and found herself working with a colleague who had had the same experience. She walked with crutches, he with the help of a prosthetic leg.
Carrere is such a beguiling writer that he lulls you into forgetting what lies in wait for Juliette. In simple declarative sentences he reconstructs her life — her judicial aims, the arrival of her new baby, her husband's sudden flourishing as a caretaker for their kid — with unfussy immediacy. Then the cancer comes back with a vengeance, and Carrere tells the story of its devastation and Juliette's death with a faithfulness that is ferocious in its power.
In the telling of Juliette's death, something happens to Carrere as a writer, something that goes beyond sublimation. The Adversary, Carrere's book about a French con artist and murderer, was a study in the fascination with evil. But there was a coolness to it, a distance, as if Carrere were a man poking a beast through its cage with plastic tongs.
Lives Other Than My Own tries to invoke Carrere's various neuroses, but you can sense his waning interest in shock value. Carrere seems to have finally grasped that narrative is not just a vessel for what is considered off-limits in life. It can be a vessel for knowledge one never wished to possess.
"Delphine and Jerome have not two children but three," Carrere writes near the book's conclusion, "it's just that one of them is dead." Arithmetic like this cannot be taught, but it can be absorbed — however briefly — in a story, if this graceful and important book is any proof.