SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL by Herman Koch; book review

 

The Dutch author Herman Koch hit the big time with his last novel, The Dinner, an international bestseller examining the nastiness underpinning modern middle-class life, told by a thoroughly despicable misanthropist.

This follow-up shares many of the same traits, and while it's engaging and admirable for the most part, it is also less focused than its predecessor, preferring to amble along where The Dinner cut to the chase.

For the whole of Summer House with Swimming Pool we're in the company of Dr Marc Schlosser, a general practitioner who hates the world and everyone in it, his celebrity patients most of all. Marc is thoroughly unlikable but instantly compelling, and what makes him work so well as a narrator is that his internal flights of hatred have a kernel of truth about them - they're not so outlandishly exaggerated that the reader can't relate, albeit sometimes you're left reading through your fingers and squirming at his brutal observations.

The action really begins when Marc and his wife, Caroline, wind up holidaying with their two beautiful young daughters, aged 11 and 13, sharing a Mediterranean bolthole with Ralph Meier, a bloated, larger-than-life actor, and his seductive wife Judith. Also in tow are Ralph and Judith's two sons, and a slimy elderly film director with his gorgeous teenage model girlfriend.

For much of Summer House, sexual tension simmers just below the surface of the narrative. Ralph licks his lips as he flirts with Caroline, Marc is eyeing up Judith for a possible fling, and all male heads turn when the girls are playing by the pool.

It's this last factor that is the most uncomfortable in the novel, deliberately so on Koch's part, as he examines with painful bluntness the way in which men objectify and salivate over women of all ages.

Later, when Marc's eldest daughter Julia is subjected to a terrible act of violence on the beach at night, events spin out of control, leading indirectly to the death of another character and Marc getting in a whole heap of trouble.

The darkness at the heart of Marc's world view is convincing, although this reviewer could have done with less of the rambling asides, the meandering proclamations and the musings on the nature of man. Summer House with Swimming Pool examines humanity's failings well enough, but a more precisely directed narrative might have fared even better.

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