Herman Koch
Summer House with Swimming Pool

Summer House with Swimming Pool is a darkly comic novel, part family drama, part mystery. The narrator, Marc Schlosser, is a doctor to celebrities who has become deeply disillusioned with treating a superficial clientele whose ailments are brought about by their lifestyle excesses.

An acute observer of people, with a dry and acerbic wit, Schlosser is a man riddled with contradictions. On the one hand, his views of other people are misanthropic and his attitude towards women in general is deeply troubling. On the other, his affection for his wife and two teenage daughters is real and endearing. His sense of humour is also irresistibly black and he’s disarmingly upfront about his own shortcomings. He quips: “You could call me ‘easy’ when it comes to prescribing certain medicines. That’s right, I’m easy.”

Schlosser’s life started to unravel when he began a friendship with a patient, Ralph Meier, a stage actor and narcissist alcoholic with whom Schlosser’s family spent their previous summer holidays. It was during that holiday, recounted in an extended flashback, that Schlosser’s teenage daughter suffered a terrible assault, for which he blamed Meier. With Meier now dead after suspect medical treatment from Schlosser, the doctor stands accused of professional misconduct in an apparent act of retribution.

Even in translation from Dutch, there’s no false note. The story’s success relies heavily on the conviction of Schlosser’s voice, and the cast of characters are viewed through his cynical eyes. Meier, for example, “looked at women as though he were flipping through a copy of Playboy”.

But the comedy-of-manners tone belies the seriousness of Koch’s true subject – masculinity. Between the two men there is an ongoing competitive brinkmanship; each desires the other’s wife, each tries to outdo the other. In one of his more outlandish stunts, Meier launches a frying pan into the night sky with the aid of some fireworks.

The mystery of what happened to Schlosser’s daughter drives this compelling novel. Was his revenge on Meier warranted? Or are his convictions a product of a troubled mind? The ending is tantalisingly ambiguous. What is clear is that Schlosser, with his scepticism and suspicion, has built his own dark universe. A world that is both disturbing and engrossing, to which we are granted a privileged view, from a merciful distance.  HT

Text, 256pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 5, 2014 as "Summer House with Swimming Pool, Herman Koch". Subscribe here.