Lives Other Than My Own – BOOK REVIEW

In a new series on my blog, I will be writing essays of the texts I am currently studying for my Creative Writing MA course, including my own opinions on the piece as well as a look into the creative devices each writer employs.

Lives Other Than My Own places Carrère between two families who have experienced great loss. One a five-year old girl who is killed by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in Sri Lanka; she is survived by her parents and granddad, who Carrère and his family befriend on their holiday, whilst fortunately escaping the disaster themselves.

The other is Carrère’s sister-in-law Juliette, who dies of cancer in France; she is survived by her husband, three children and her enigmatic colleague and confidante Étienne whom Carrère strikes up a friendship with, and who inspires him to write this book.Whilst technically a memoir, this is a book in which Carrère centres the experiences of others, whilst giving out little insight into his own life.

In one sense, the book functions as Carrère’s antidote to second-hand grief: despite being present with both families during these awful events, he admits he is only a witness and cannot fully experience the grief himself. He is on the outside and just thankful it is not him. Despite his feelings that himself and the grieving families are split into two “separate branches of humanity”, it is Étienne who tells Carrère that it is his distance from the families’ horrors that “gives [him] the authority” to write about it.

Carrère’s voice and narration allows him to strike the balance between wanting to remain faithful to the events, whilst also creating an engaging story that captures the natural ‘felt-sense’ of a moment. Felt-sense is, as described by Amanda Boulter, a concept penned by Eugene Gendlin and it ‘describes that way we understand our environment through feelings and sensations before we can translate this understanding into words.’[1] For example, after a complicated discussion regarding Juliette and Étienne discovering a legal loophole to solve an ongoing plight, Carrère describes this moment as such: ‘In a film, gripping, dramatic music would accompany the heroine’s discovery of the text. […] Reverse shot of him, calm, intense: Right?’ Immediately, Carrère admits, ‘I’m making fun just a little here’.

Carrère adds in these film-like moments of hyperbole as a means of connecting with the reader. He adds in the felt-sense of the moment, a moment that may initially alienate or even bore the reader, but his description allows this felt-sense of the moment to become part of the narrative and so, accessible. Carrère in this way is omnipresent within his memoir about other people’s lives; from his self-deprecating admissions that he feels left out when his wife and the father of the little girl who died venture to the hospital together, to his own occasional interjections of opinion when one of his interviewees lacks clarity in their version of events.

Carrère’s depiction of suffering, death and loss I found to be the most compelling part of his writing style. The tone was never sensationalist and merely illustrated real, horrifying events within the tedium of everyday life, the way we actually experience them. His metafiction draws attention to these horrors more accurately, as he consistently reminds us that he does not need to embellish the truth; the truth reveals its nature just by having happened: ‘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 as their mother lies dying in the hospital.’

This may have interesting implications when applied to fiction. By imitating the style of a biography, insisting in its own existence, has the ability to heighten a reader’s reaction and give it more emotional weight. Moreover, his exploration of the language and behaviours we take on when experiencing grief are incredibly insightful.

One example that stood out to me was when the family is talking to Ruth who believes her husband to be dead in the tsunami. Carrère writes, ‘She refuses to believe in his death, but she says He was a carpenter. The past tense is already eating into her story.’ The metaphorical language viscerally illustrates the overwhelming dichotomy of past and present that we, as humans, reckon with upon learning of someone’s death. The notion of the past eating into her story explores the nuance of what people do when they are unsure if someone is alive or dead. We don’t know what tense to use, and despite batting death away, the uncertainty begins to eat at our reluctance to accept an awful truth.

I also found Carrère’s lack of speech marks interesting, a technique I have seen more recently in Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Otherand Sally Rooney’s Normal People. In all three, it has the effect of allowing the author’s narration to weave seamlessly between the dialogue, binding the two as part of the same, homogenous experience. Particularly within the biographical nature of Lives Other Than My Own, this allowed Carrère to disappear into the narrative, to fully showcase the voices and experiences that make this book what it is. In doing so, he gleefully delights in his own irrelevance and functions as merely an orator of how two families survive against incredible odds. 

[1] Boulter, Amanda. Writing Fiction: Creative and Critical Approaches. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, p. 106.

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