Summer House with Swimming Pool

Herman Koch

Published by Atlantic Books UK 3 July 2014, Hogarth/Random House US

416pp, paperback

Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner

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Some novels call out for a better title and this is one of them. Yes, it’s a book about some events that occur principally at a summer house with swimming pool, but at heart it’s about men’s eyes – the sexual appraisal of females by the male glance in general and the occluded vision of one man in particular.

Dr Marc Schlosser, Dutch GP to the celebs, is a man with both a metaphorical mote in his eye – he judges other men’s behavior while blithely condoning his own– and a literal one, during the key summer night at the heart of Koch’s new novel. That evening Marc suffers a piece of grit or glass in his eyeball. How he administers medical relief to himself is a passage not for the squeamish.

Marc’s vision offers a misanthropic view of his fatuous, self-deluding patients – artists, writers, filmmakers and the like – especially the ugly, hairy, obese ones. Marc is also quick to spot libidinous older men with leering but often hooded observations of attractive women. His own inclination to judge female flesh does not, of course, come up for critical comment.

That Marc’s world is so clearly polarized is not perhaps surprising: he learned his medicine from a professor whose commitment to evolutionary determinism and eugenics borders on the fascistic. Such theories are simple in their extremism, and so too is Marc’s action when it comes to protecting his own bloodline, his family. Deviancy must, after all, he argues, be simply excised from the healthy strain.

Events circle around Marc’s medical practice before and after the fateful summer. Thanks to his well-healed patients Marc, his wife and two teenage daughters enjoy a comfortable life-style including indulgent summer holidays on the beaches of Europe. It’s during one of these seasonal breaks that the central events of the novel occur, on an evening that includes road rage, adulterous flirtation, drunken driving, fist fights, dangerous firework releases – and rape.

This night, the centre of Koch’s novel, is a layer cake of outrage piled on excess, a teetering stack of bad behavior and atavistic action. Marc, one bad boy amongst a whole crew of adults behaving execrably, spends much of the book trying to decode the events as a means of saving his family and gaining revenge. But Koch keeps the reader guessing, suggesting one culprit after another for the over-riding crime. There are no clean hands here, certainly not those of Ralph Meier, the famous actor at whose eponymous summer rental Marc and his family have been staying because Marc has eyes for Meier’s wife.

For those seeking another helping of middle-class shock jock literature to sit alongside Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap’s and the novels of Chuck Palahniuk, look no further. Koch’s latest is angry and deliberately offensive, a novel designed to get all manner of niche groups tutting. If you enjoy having your outrage safely tickled, this one’s for you.

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