Year 3 / Book 29: The Adversary

29) The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrere

This is a curious and affecting short book, which opens with a powerful hook and never really lets go. It’s about a man, Jean-Claude Romand, who has lived his life (as the subtitle has it) as a ‘monstrous deception’. A deception that unravels as this book opens – his wife and children die in a fire; they are found to have been dead before the fire starts; his uncle goes to tell Romand’s parents (Romand survives the fire and is a coma) and finds them both killed; the police assume it is something to do with Romand’s work at the World Health Organisation, before finding he has never worked there; and then his mistress comes forward, saying he also tried to kill her in the woods. Insert your own cliché here about truth, strangeness and fiction.

What raises the book above a ‘standard’ true crime recounting is that Carrere firmly inserts himself in the narrative – contacting Romand and increasingly interspersing his own thoughts and reflections on identity, truth and spirituality (‘the adversary’ is a reference to the devil). For Carrere, he is really interested in the moment when the lies began, rather than the end point of how they spiralled, and what it means for anyone to live in such a constant state of ‘deception’: what did Romand think about when he drove off, pretending to go to work in Geneva, before walking in the woods for hours? Where does fiction end and truth begin, and whereso in his mind?

When the balance of plot detail and narrative propulsion with Carrere’s own reflections is maintained, the book works brilliantly – I would say for the first three-quarters of its pages. But it tails off into more general thoughts about spirituality, redemption and such like (Romand gets ‘befriended’ by evangelical Christians while in prison), and loses its focus or (like Romand’s real-life narrative) any chance of a succinct resolution. In this sense, the book faded away, and I found myself looking to Wikipedia for the what happened next (he’s eligible for parole since 2015, as it happens) and for some sort of end point.

Nevertheless, it’s a powerful telling of an extraordinary tale, with shocks, twists and countless questions that will keep you awake for quite some time. Recommended.

Score: 7.5/10

BUY IT NOW: The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception (Everyman’s Library CLASSICS)

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