Zebra One, we’re on our way!
Once again translated by Sam Garrett, Dutch author Herman Koch returns with an eagerly anticipated summer thriller about a successful doctor and a family vacation in the Mediterranean gone horribly wrong. Fans of his previous outing are sure to be delighted by the author’s insistence on sticking closely to the same blueprint that turned him into an overnight international best-seller, while those who didn’t care all that much for 2013’s The Dinner will most likely find even less to enjoy here.
Marc Schlosser seems to have it all, a successful business as a family practitioner to the stars, a loving wife, and two strikingly beautiful daughters, but as is so often the case in life, contentment doesn’t come easy. When actor Ralph Meier muscles his way into both Marc’s practice and his personal life, something changes. Previously immune to the trappings of the Hollywood lifestyle, Marc becomes intrigued by Ralph’s blatantly obvious interest in his wife Caroline, and in turn becomes infatuated with Ralph’s wife Judith. All men are dogs, as the saying goes, but is one of these two a stone cold murderer? As the novel opens, one thing is clear: Ralph Meier is dead. It will take rewinding backward to the events of the previous summer, shortly after the pair first met, to unravel what ultimately lead to the actor’s demise.
Marc shares a lot in common with Paul from The Dinner. Both are reveal themselves to be not exactly unreliable narrators, but characters with a slightly odd view of the world that is slowly exposed to the reader over time. Koch’s method of revealing pieces of an individual’s identity in small doses has a way of hypnotizing the reader, lulling them into a false sense of agreement until the events of the final act are revealed. Here things are pushed one step too far for their comfort, and after seeing where it all ends up, the reader is forced to confront the fact that they were all too readily agreeable to play the role of a silent partner in the events that unfolded. It’s this awkward, uncomfortable, unsettling feeling that one has when they complete a Koch novel that makes them so damn fun to devour.
The similarities between the novels and their two protagonists don’t end here.
You get a stain on your pants. Your favorite pair of pants. You wash them ten times in a row at 160 degrees. You scrub and scour and rub. You bring in the heavy artillery. Bleaches. Abrasive cleaners. But the spot doesn’t go away. If you scrub and scour too long, it will only be replaced by something else. By a stretch of fabric that is thinner and paler. The paler cloth is the memory. The memory of the spot. Now there are two things you can do. You can throw the pants away, or you can walk around for the rest of your life with the memory of the stain. But the paler cloth reminds you of more than just the stain. It also reminds you of when the pants were still clean.
Paul and Marc both flat out refuse to talk about specific family events. For Paul it was his wife’s hospitalization and treatment. He wouldn’t reveal to the reader why or even where she was admitted. For Marc it’s specific details around an attack that occurs on his daughter that are referenced only to reinforce the fact that they won’t be talked about. These refusals to provide information seem odd in the grand storytelling scheme since both men are otherwise fairly forthcoming with details, but Koch’s “don’t tell” attitude in certain critical moments does force the reader to allow their brain to wander and dream up chilling scenarios of its own, thoughts and ideas that are probably far worse than anything the author himself could hope to present as believable fact.
Both novels are obsessed with food, with The Dinner focusing in on the ridiculous nature of overpriced restaurants and the invisible ties we make between food and stimulating conversation, and Summer House returning time and again to an almost unhealthy obsession with ingesting large quantities of seafood. Both novels also reference unnamed illnesses that plague the minds and bodies of its central characters. Finally, both feature male protagonists that seek to protect their family’s best interests.
Similarities aside, Summer House seeks to challenge our understanding of human sexuality, pushing at the boundaries of what we consider acceptable behavior. Koch challenges the reader to draw a line in the sand with regards to what they’ll stand for, and then gleefully steps over it, pushing the novel ever forward towards an even darker resolution than expected. What starts off in the direction of garden variety adultery quickly morphs into something far more sinister, with Marc’s eldest daughter at the center of a complex situation.
Our physiology dictates what we want; even if society manufactures rules telling us that what we desire is wrong. How far would you be willing to go to protect your family? How young is too young? What’s “normal” “acceptable” behavior in a young child? Who are you to pass judgment on the way another human being choses to live their life? Summer House with Swimming Pool will force you to address all of these difficult questions, and more, as you ride shotgun with a father that’s determined to travel well beyond the truth to justify and rationalize his actions.
It isn’t the must-read diabolical Dutch family thriller of the past few years, that distinction still belongs to Arnon Grunberg’s Tirza (also expertly translated by Garrett), but once it picks up steam, reading Summer House with Swimming Pool becomes a deeply enjoyable and unforgettably disturbing experience.
Summer House with Swimming Pool
By Herman Koch
Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett