Carpenter’s (This Jealous Earth, 2012) suspenseful debut novel weaves together the consequences of a horrific trauma and the thirst for both vengeance and acceptance with explorations of the human mind, family dynamics and the complexities of language.
A psychiatrist seems well-positioned to process the psychic damage of past events, but Dr. Philip Adler, 52, remains devastated 15 years after the violent death of his only child. As a result, his marriage has imploded, he has developed substance abuse problems, and he has run from the Normandy town where he and his family lived. Adler is a broken, lonely man trying to show strength to others through his clinical practice, but he’s unable to reconcile the events of the past. Although Édouard Morin, a mentally ill local youth, confessed to the crime and has been institutionalized and everyone involved, including Adler’s ex-wife and her new family, wants very much to forget the episode, the body of teenage Sophie Adler has never been found. When the death of Adler’s mother-in-law impels him to finally return to Yvetot, France, he realizes that he must reach closure before he can try to build a new life. Of the many ways a novelist could approach the search for a missing body, Carpenter opts for a most complex and ingenious one—through a detailed analysis of the language used by the brilliant, psychotic Morin during his brief, ill-advised interviews with Adler. This taut, high-stakes plotline is very effective, but the novel contains much more than this. Although Adler is a former resident and fluent in French, he is an interloper in the close-knit community. He is an American; he lacks understanding of the intricacies of French culture; and he is a constant reminder of the town’s inability to keep one of their own safe. As he stirs up unpleasant memories, the town mobilizes against him. The author’s ability to satirize the French people’s distaste for outsiders and their inflexibility brings mordant humor to the grim proceedings.
Fully realized characters, a remarkable fluency of language, wit, and an extensive comprehension of French culture and history make this literary novel a stellar achievement.