The Adversary: A Novel

  • By Michael Crummey
  • Doubleday
  • 336 pp.
  • Reviewed by Chris Rutledge
  • March 14, 2024

Rivals battle over what’s theirs in 1800s Newfoundland.

The Adversary: A Novel

“Elias Caines died in late October but the reading of his last will and testament was delayed by the ongoing pestilential outbreak that killed him,” we learn early on in The Adversary. “It wasn’t until three days after Abe Strapp’s wedding that Aubrey Picco brought together the Widow Caines and Myles Taverner, second cousin to Elias, his long-time accountant and only blood relative in the new world, to hear the dead man’s final wishes.”

The central theme in acclaimed Canadian author Michael Crummey’s new novel, set in 19th-century Newfoundland, is how punishing personal squabbles grow more pitched amid lingering resentments. The catalyst for the acrimony is the intensifying rivalry between merchants vying to control local commerce in the wake of Elias’ death. Antagonist Abe believes himself the rightful heir to all waterfront trade in the small fishing village of Mockbeggar. Myles thinks he should be Elias’ successor. And the Widow Caines (who is also Abe’s sister) feels entitled to be left alone.

Unfortunately, when interests collide in life, conflict inevitably ensues, fueling scandalous behavior — and self-righteousness in those witnessing it. Such is true here. Abe’s long-suffering assistant, the Beadle, is always at hand, readily tut-tutting at his employer’s deeds. When Abe stumbles around drunk with his lackeys, the Beadle is there both to smooth things over and to cast a withering eye. The Widow Caines has her own sins to atone for and pays a hefty price for them. Those who know what she’s done are quick to mutter their disapproval.

“She lacked a proper sense of caution,” Myles had once warned Elias. “In every circumstance Mrs. Caines advocated for the riskiest option, arguing for more debt to underwrite expansion, looking for markets beyond the established buyers in Europe and the West Indies. It was arrogance at best, Myles told him, and recklessness at worst.”

The novel explores sexuality a great deal — Abe opens a bawdy house to satisfy his neighbors’ lustful appetites — as well as 19th-century gender roles, which seem unusually liberal, at least at first. The Widow Caines manifests business acumen and authority. To her mind, she’s every bit the equal of her brother. She even dresses in her late husband’s clothes and doesn’t hesitate to sleep with someone as a way to consecrate and consummate a deal.

Yet just when you imagine Mockbeggar is uniquely forward-thinking, it’s made clear that these are the 1800s and “traditional” values are meant to prevail. The characters are locked in a place and time where hypocrisy and egotism reign supreme. The Beadle’s disdain for the Widow exemplifies this reality. He knows how much she yearns to shed gender constraints and takes care to punish her for it.

There’s much to recommend this novel. Narrative shifts keep readers on their toes, and Crummey does a fine job with misdirection. From the outset, we’re introduced to characters we assume will play central roles, only to have the rug pulled out from under us. The characters themselves are quite interesting; the women are particularly well defined. Male writers can fall short in this department, but not Crummey. His is a superbly wrought — if curiously large for such a tiny town — cast of men and women with complex interior lives that reveal the motivations for their exterior actions.

If there are any nits to pick, it’s that the plot could’ve been clearer, especially in those aforementioned instances when characters drop in and out unexpectedly. In all, though, The Adversary is an intriguing adventure that successfully evokes a long-ago period that, while different from our own, offers fascinating parallels to modern-day human behavior. It’s a worthwhile read.

Chris Rutledge is a husband, father, writer, nonprofit professional, and community member living in Silver Spring, MD. Besides the Independent, his work has appeared in Kirkus Reviews, American Book Review, and countless intemperate Facebook posts, which will surely get him into trouble one day.

Believe in what we do? Support the nonprofit Independent!
comments powered by Disqus