The Adversary is the true story of a wealthy doctor who kills his family and sets fire to his house. Except he’s not a doctor, and he’s not wealthy – it turns out that everything we know about the good doctor is a lie, and the scale of his secrets is almost beyond imagination. So who is he? And why did he do it? Emmanuel Carrère’s latest novel jumps straight into the mysterious case of Jean-Claude Romand.
It’s hard to describe The Adversary satisfactorily. It’s mostly true crime, but literary too – which aren’t genres or styles I’d ordinarily put together (although Bill Beverly did a pretty handy job of melding regular crime and literary fiction in Dodgers, so what do I know?). In the case of Jean-Claude Romand, Carrère has found a crime that sits astride these two genres perfectly – Romand’s life was a fantasy wrapped in a tall tale hidden in hogwash. As far as non-fiction goes, it’s got all of the elements that a fiction writer needs.
The Adversary had me hooked from the get go – partly because the case is genuinely shocking, but also because Carrère’s writing is electrifying at times, and his observations so acute, like when he wonders how a nurse would greet Romand when he comes out of his coma:
This is pretty typical of the book – Carrère has an uncanny ability to cast a strange light on the even stranger proceedings in a way that moves or shocks.
And yet… The Adversary feels somehow lightweight. Carrère spends a lot time sifting through the facts of Romand’s life, without exploring the “whys” enough. It feels like we only get a cursory glimpse of his inner workings, when a case like this demands so much more. It feels like Carrère is on the brink of a universal insight into the human condition, only to pull back at the final moment, leaving us wanting. Maybe this was always going to be an unsatisfying read though – the man’s life was a complete fabrication from the start. There was no truth to it at all, nothing to learn but a cautionary tale.
In the end, I still recommend this book: the case is fascinating, and Carrère’s writing good. But it could’ve been so much more.
So what do you think? Have you read it? Did you like it? Would you recommend it?
Let me know in the comments!
Already read this one? Well if you’re after recommendations along similar lines, then why not try one of these: