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Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch; trans. Sam Garrett, book review
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014.
Thursday 03 July 2014
Herman Koch's second book to be translated from his native Dutch has all the distinctive features of his first, the international bestseller, The Dinner. There is a narrator who whispers warped thoughts into your ear. There is the black humour and dangerous fantasy that might erupt into the real world at any moment. And there is the hissing satire that mocks bourgeois values and threatens a sudden, alarming loss of etiquette.
Also central to both books are children, on the cusp of adulthood, who find themselves embroiled in an act of violence. The calm surface of the plot hinges around this singular episode of horror; until then, there are foreshadowings of it, with the quietly menacing narrative voice warning us it will come, soon.
The violence in Summer House with Swimming Pool is not quite as impactful as in The Dinner, which featured two boys, filmed committing a brutal, motiveless crime. The question of how far their parents would go to protect them gave that story a far-reaching moral dimension, even when the plot slid from believable reality to melodrama.
In this novel, the violence is not as startling because we see it coming – the narrative drives up to it far more emphatically, telling us something irreversibly bad will happen. A 13-year-old daughter dragged along by her parents to holiday with a more glamorous family is marked by it, but this act in itself doesn't spark a moral dilemma as it did in The Dinner, or in Christos Tsiolkas's The Slap, but only leads to more vengeful acts which spiral into the murderously baroque.
The narrator, a GP who hates his celebrity patients, is as dead-eyed as Brett Easton Ellis's central character in Imperial Bedrooms, except that, on the outside, he is a loving family man with a wife and two lovely daughters. His rolling reel of death- and pain-fantasies, which mainly take place when his patients are laying on his gurney, are darkly amusing, but the cumulative pile-up of violence – real and imagined – drains and disturbs by the end. Are we in the presence of a handsome Dr Shipman, we wonder at first, or does it stop at fantasy? The story reads better before we find out in the last third of the novel.
Koch, one suspects, is not aiming for a believable story with likeable characters, the latter of which – especially his men – are mostly objectionable. More problematically, the narrative seems gimmicky at times, with some repeating literary ticks – Koch conspicuously withholds information from the reader, delaying its telling, and there are a few too many doomy metaphors. Yet, this book is horribly thrilling, and utterly entertaining. There is a manic clarity and gleefulness to its writing.
More effective than the violence is the revenge fantasy, spurred by envy, and enacted on people deemed the most successful in society. It is funny too, when Koch satirises the rich and famous. Just as the high-end "foodie" satire was the strongest aspect of The Dinner, here the fakery of film-makers, artists, novelists, gets a brilliant mauling, and leaves you wishing for more. One wonders how much Koch drew on his real world, given he is also an actor. If I had to recommend a summer read, I would say take this book to the beach, you'll be gripped and chilled, but be warned, you might be left feeling betrayed in the end by its manipulative games.
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