‘Lives Other Than My Own’ by Emmanuel Carrère – When Bad Things Happen to Good People


‘Lives Other Than My Own’ by Emmanuel Carrère (2009) – 243 pages       Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale

Is this book a memoir or an autobiographical novel? I’ve seen it called both. Carrère writes with such verisimilitude that I usually equate with the telling of facts. For me, that is not a particularly good thing as I much prefer fiction to non-fiction, the reasons for which I will not go into here.

However Emmanuel Carrère is one writer for whom I pay attention even to his non-fiction. Notice that even the famous French translator Linda Coverdale will translate his books.

‘Lives Other Than My Own’ is Carrère’s personal reaction to two tragedies.

One of the tragedies is the tsunami tidal wave caused by an Indian Ocean earthquake on December 26, 2004 that killed about 280,000 people, mostly in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Carrère and his family happened to be vacationing in Sri Lanka at that time, and they escaped unscathed. However a French couple which are their friends lose a four year-old daughter who was swept away in the giant wave.

The wave carried away her future along with her past.”

Carrère is quite eloquent in describing the devastation of this mother and father. As my mother used to say, “life goes on for the living”.

At least the deaths in the tsunami were quick and relatively painless deaths. The next death that Carrère discusses is a death due to cancer, a slow and painful death. His wife’s younger sister dies at age 33 of a recurrence of the cancer she had as a child.

This woman was a French judge, and a secondary theme of this book seems to be the handling of bad debts, debtors, and creditors by the courts. Altogether too much time and effort in the book is spent in explaining the intricacies of French consumer law.

Most people who have lived long enough have experienced a few personal tragedies during their lives, someone in their family or a close friend dying or becoming gravely ill at a relatively young age. “I can’t go on; I will go on.” Carrère deals with the two families’ grief in a heartfelt and empathetic manner.

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 these two misfortunes, one right after the other, and assigned me – at least that’s how I understood it – to tell that story.”

Here Carrère is plain-spoken with little artistic embellishment. It does not always make the most interesting reading, but his heart is always in the right place, and he makes sure you know that.


Grade:    B



4 responses to this post.

  1. I don’t think it’s one I want to read, but I learned something I didn’t know from reading your review — that some of the tsunami victims were holidaymakers from overseas. The focus in our media has always been on the terrible destruction and the loss of life among the locals in that dreadful disaster. So to learn about these poor people returning from their holiday without their little girl is very sad indeed.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Lisa,
      Many people don’t realize that this Indian Ocean tsunami wave in 2004 is the worst disaster so far in the 21st century with 285,000 people killed. Yes, some tourists who happened to be near the ocean did get swept away too. They did recover most of the bodies which were swept back up to shore. It is difficult to imagine such a wave.



      • Natural disasters are an awful way for us to learn that we do not control this planet at all. I remember seeing one poor old man in Aceh who had lost every single member of his family and extended family. I think about him sometimes, and wonder who looked after him…

        Liked by 1 person


        • I came across a good line in the novel I am reading now, “Divide Me By Zero” by Lara Vapnyar:
          “And then wasn’t life itself a perfect dark comedy too, with its journey to an inevitable tragic ending interspersed with absurd events providing comic relief?”

          Liked by 1 person


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