In a small village in the South of France, a man butchers his family. They had finally discovered the life they had been living for the past twenty years was a lie. That *he* was a lie. He wasn’t a highly paid doctor working for the World Health Organisation in Geneva. He was simply a fake – leaving the family home in the morning with a kiss and a smile, only to spend his days driving aimlessly around from cafe to cafe, reading – always reading – sinking deeper and deeper into his twisted fake life. Snowballing until – in his mind – the only logical escape is to end the lives of his wife and kids. If everything had gone to plan, he’d have taken his own life too – but after failing (either intentionally or otherwise) he ends up on trial, beginning a strange correspondence via mail with a renowned author who has taken a particular interest in the case.
Beginning The Adversary is a strange experience. Maybe it’s inherent in the original writing style, or a product of the translation, but this tale – essentially non-fiction told in a fiction-esque narrative style, has a particularly unique, almost unsettling cadence to it. The prose runs and runs, flowing along with scant moment to pause and reflect. Maybe its the quasi-reportage style, with dialogue kept to a minimum. Maybe it’s the emerging sense of unease as your realise this book is essentially the product of an ongoing communication between killer and writer. Or maybe it’s all of this combined – delivering a book that feels caught halfway between traditional crime-thriller and lengthy newspaper opinion piece.
This unique writing style lends itself to you sometimes forgetting that the horrific events of the novel *actually* happened – a danger, I feel, the author is all too aware of. The more you read, the more you realise that the book is not really about the killings themselves, but more about the mindset of the killer, the writer’s efforts to understand that mindset, and the remarkable web of lies the killer wove in order to dupe his family and friends.
Is the novel overly sympathetic to the killer? It’s another key issue the writer wrestles with in his attempts to get to the bottom of the killer’s brand of calm, composed madness. But really, with The Adversary, the devil is in the detail – we too are charmed by the novel’s depiction of sleepy French villages and bourgeois life in the glorious South of France. We too become obsessive in our understanding of the killer’s rhythms and habits as he consumes vast volumes of printed material – as he whiles away the hours when his family believe him to be at work. Or the unbelievable (and sad) trust his parents place in him and his silver-tongued lies regarding what he’s doing with their retirement fund.
The other scary thing about the Adversary is just how believable it is. It shows how distinctly ‘normal’ citizens can trip across a boundary into an abnormality that begins to rot away in the mind. A kind of spectrum of self-belief that fuels an ever more corrupted way of living. It’s about the lies we tell ourselves and others to maintain – at all cost – the image we have in our minds of ourselves. The lengths we’ll go to in order to maintain an ‘easy’ status quo, even if that status quo is utterly bizarre in its existence. It shows how – arguably – given the right circumstances, anyone can begin a long downhill trajectory into hell.
The Adversary asks us many times to cast judgement – in a story like this, it’s impossible not to – and by the end, even introduces a heavy religious element into the mix. But for me, this – like the killing itself – is just a sideshow to the deeper, interior story this book is trying to sketch. Half-formed and sometimes fragmentary, The Adversary itself is only half the story – at a scant 200 pages, quickly and easily consumed. But beyond the words on the page lies something far deeper, like an endless riddle, impossible to untangle; and unending, unceasing attempt to rationalise the mind of a killer.