by Edith Cody-Rice
Dutch novelist Herman Koch writes from a dark place. In this, his second novel to be translated into English, he repeats certain aspects of his international best selling novel The Dinner. As in The Dinner, the central protagonist is contemptible in many ways and you are aware of that from the first pages of the book. Dr. Marc Shipman, a family physician, is deeply misanthropic and is disgusted by the human body, which he sees daily in all its unglamorous aspects.He is a doctor to celebrities: actors and film producers, whom he despises at some level, but who, as his wife points out, also see him as lower than themselves – just a little family doctor.
The novel opens with the ending really, and the trajectory of the narrative is a flashback to a summer vacation at the home of a famous actor Ralph Meir who had rented a summer house with a swimming pool. The ending of the story involves a case of medical malpractice committed by Dr Shipman on Ralph Meir. Mr. Meir has died, taking his own life at the end of a terminal illness. Mr. Meir’s wife is pursuing Dr Shipman before the Board of Medical Examiners.
As the story unravels, we discover that all is not as it seems. As in The Dinner, a dark incident involving one of Marc Shipman’s children, a 13 year old daughter, is central to the development and the denouement of this book.
There is a fascination to Herman Koch’s writing. His main characters are frequently despicable but with some redeeming qualities. In The Dinner, a group of parents go to extremes to protect their children who have committed a motiveless, cruel crime. That, in some measure redeems them. In Summer House with Swimming Pool, it is evident that Dr. Shipman adores his daughters, but he also has the capacity for dark violence, which, as in The Dinner, he reveals in a fantasy that makes the reader wary of him. Still, while disliking his protagonists, we see a sort of modern everyman in them, with all the immorality or amorality of modern life. Only one character in this novel is admirable, Dr. Shipman’s wife Caroline. Only one, Lisa, the younger daughter is innocent. For the rest, they all are corrupt in some way — even the apparently innocent are not innocent.
This is the fascination of the novel – we are gripped by the characters even as we are repelled by them. Herman Koch is an excellent writer and the voice of the narrator/protagonist and the conversations in the book sound absolutely real. Even though I knew the ending from the beginning pages of the book– or thought I did, I could not put it down. An absorbing read. Once again, as in The Dinner, kudos to the translator Sam Garrett. I do not speak Dutch, but believe that he must have captured the essence of the book. It grabs you.
Summer House with Swimming Pool is published by Hogarth, an imprint of Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House