REVIEW: There is an unsettling edge of nastiness just below the surface of Herman Koch's Summer House with Swimming Pool, which is even more disquieting because it makes for a compulsively enjoyable novel. The novel's only guide, Dr Marc Schlosser, quickly proves himself to be anything but trustworthy. He has developed his medical practice by satisfying the hypochondria, the prescription drug-addictions, and the egocentricity of his Dutch entertainment industry clients. Familiarity has bred his contempt with regard to their bodies, their vanity, and their fears. Schlosser has been charged with malpractice in the death of one of his celebrity clients, Ralph Meier, who had just had his big break playing the role of Tiberius in an HBO mini-series. Meier with his powerful bulk, sudden appetites and domineering personality, might have been a charismatic man, but at their first meeting he examined Schlosser's wife as if she were a "tasty morsel … to wolf down in a few bites".
Both Schlosser and Schlosser's wife had been flattered by the famous actor's attentions but they find themselves involved in ways they had not initially contemplated. The two families, both with teenage children, decide to share a holiday together at a Mediterranean resort but the sun-drenched days quickly reveal toxic shadows. Summer House with Swimming Pool is a novel of short stabbing glimpses. Things are seen with enough contextual information to enable an instant interpretation to be made, but as the novel progresses, alternative and increasingly unpleasant versions present themselves. The reader is made complicit very quickly. Despite his contempt for his patients, Marc Schlosser is oddly likable. The summer holiday in a beach villa promises great things in the same way as travel-agents sell packaged holidays. However, it doesn't take long for the underside of paradise to make an appearance: too much alcohol, the failed camping-ground with neglected animals in a pet zoo, and family tensions rising in over-crowded accommodation. Koch has a knack of getting the vacation setting just right, but he is also a great master of unease. Sexual romances flare and flourish among the teenagers of the two families with the connivance and tolerance of adults who are blinded by their own infidelities. Beach parties and bars turn out to be anything but pleasurable interludes.
Finally, complications over-balance the vacation setting. There are more volatile passions waiting underneath the commonplace, and a single spark ignites them when one of Schlosser's daughters goes missing for a few hours. The novel is compulsive reading, not only for what will happen, but to discover what has already happened. The meaning of an incident is revised, and sometimes revised again. It's a dramatic and gripping narrative and it is often staged in the reader's thoughts.
Koch is the Dutch author of several books including the bestselling The Dinner. His skills are apparent in Summer House with Swimming Pool as layers are stripped from personalities and stories in an almost forensic fashion. Koch undercuts assumptions right to the unexpected conclusion, when it is hard to resist beginning the book all over again simply to see things with new eyes.
AT A GLANCE
SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL
Herman Koch, $37
- Sunday Star Times