September is now our designated season of mourning in America, its arrival accompanied by the merchandise of collective bereavement: the movies, the media coverage, the books. This is the prime spot on the national calendar, it seems, for coming to grips with grief.
Emmanuel Carrère’s “Lives Other Than My Own’’ fits right in, telling from several years’ distance a tale of swift and horrific deaths, lingering devastation, and the survivors’ determination not to succumb to sorrow. But the memoir, a bestseller in France, where it was released in 2009, has nothing to do with the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. It is, ostensibly at least, the story of two beautiful, beloved young Juliettes.
One, a 4-year-old from the south of France, was killed by the December 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka. Carrère was spending the holidays there, too, with his journalist girlfriend, Hélène, and their sons, but in the random destruction of natural disaster, the four came away unscathed.
“There we are, neat and clean,’’ he writes, surrounded by “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.’’
The other Juliette, purportedly the principal figure of the book, was a 33-year-old judge who lived only a few months past her death-sentence diagnosis that same winter. She left behind a husband, three small daughters, and an incomparable friend named Étienne, who becomes Carrère’s primary narrative fascination and leads to the book’s surprisingly absorbing detour into judicial activism on French consumer credit law.
This Juliette was Hélène’s sister, but neither her illness nor Hélène’s distress about it moved Carrère to any depth of compassion toward “this quasi sister-in-law with cancer off in her little house in the backwater of her dumpy province.’’
The point of his meandering book, and of his bald assessment of his own callousness, is that he believes he is a better human being now, changed by finally acquiring - in middle age and thanks to Hélène - the ability to love and be loved. Perhaps, but Carrère as narrator can be hard to like. He has not exactly shed the cock-of-the-walk arrogance so evident in his previous memoir, “My Life as a Russian Novel,’’ released in this country last year.
And while he appears to think, as the title of his book suggests, that he has developed the capacity to care about lives other than his own, he remains very much a man’s man. He is most comfortable telling the stories of the males in both Juliettes’ lives: the child’s grandfather Philippe, and father, Jérôme; the woman’s husband, Patrice (a gentle soul toward whom Carrère manages to condescend even in praise), and Étienne, who was one of her chief emotional supports.
“One day I said to Étienne, I didn’t know Juliette, I have no place mourning her, nothing authorizes me to write about this,’’ Carrère confesses late in the book, and he is right; he seems not at all drawn to her. He is intensely interested, however, in her lovely, 7-year-old daughter, which is a little creepy.
Carrère and Hélène have a daughter of their own now, and he says the book was a way for him to write “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.’’ That may be why, like so many eulogies, it is more about the speaker than it is about the dead.
LIVES OTHER THAN MY OWN
By Emmanuel Carrère
Translated, from the French, by Linda Coverdale
Metropolitan, 256 pp., $26Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org