AT Christmas 2004, Carrère and his partner Hélène were on holiday on a beach in Sri Lanka when the tsunami struck. They survived but some French friends they had made just two days before lost their little girl, Juliette.
“The night before the wave, I remember that Hélène and I talked about separating,” the book begins. Confronting sudden death, seeing the courage with which people who have lost everything continue to live, changes them both. The couple turn back to each other. “We had a sense of how fragile our bodies were, I looked at Hélène’s, so lovely, so weighed down with horror and fatigue. I felt not desire but a searing pity, a need to care, to cherish, to protect for ever,” says Carrère.
And this is only the 50-page prologue. The main part of the book deals with the death just four months after the tsunami of Hélène’s sister, also called Juliette, from cancer, at the age of just 32, leaving behind her husband and three small children. Juliette had suffered previously from cancer as a teenager, the treatment leaving her with one leg completely paralysed, the other partially so. She had gone on nonetheless to qualify as a lawyer, marry and make a career as a campaigning judge. Now it had returned to claim her.
Juliette’s great friend and ally in her work, a judge called Etienne Rigal, tells Carrère that together they were great judges, defending the poor against pitiless loan companies and that he should write Juliette’s story.
So he does, conducting extended interviews to investigate both their lives. The book that results, an account of how Juliette faced illness and death, shows just what love, courage and clarity about what really matters can achieve in even these circumstances.
• Other Lives But Mine
by Emmanuel Carrère, translated by Linda Coverdale
Serpent’s Tail, 240pp, £11.99