Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, Herman Koch, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Summer House with Swimming Pool’ by Herman Koch

Summer House with Swimming Pool

Fiction – paperback; Atlantic; 411 pages; 2014. Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Earlier this year I read Herman Koch’s The Dinner and loved its dark twist on family morals. His latest novel, Summer House with Swimming Pool, is just as dark, if not more so. But where The Dinner is based on a meal from hell, Summer House with Swimming Pool  is based on a holiday from hell: there are family arguments, forbidden love affairs and a few cross words between friends. But there’s also a dark undercurrent of menace and misogyny that has deep repercussions for everyone in this sorry saga.

A dodgy doctor

The story is narrated by Dr Marc Schlosser, a General Practitioner, who has a long list of rich and famous clients. Most of them have come to him because they know he’s a soft touch: he doesn’t mind how much they drink and he’ll hand out painkillers and other medication without batting an eyelid.

One of these clients is a rather famous (and obese) theatre actor called Ralph Meier with whom he develops a friendship. The friendship, however, turns out to be a little one-sided: Marc regards him as a lecherous old man who has an eye on his wife, Caroline:

It took a couple of seconds before I realised Ralph was no longer listening to me. He was no longer even looking at me. And, without following his gaze, I knew immediately what he was looking at.
Now something was happening to the gaze itself. To the eyes. As he examined the back of Caroline’s body from head to foot, a film slid down over his eyes. In nature films, you see that sometimes with birds of prey. A raptor that has located, from somewhere far up, high in the air, or from a tree branch, a mouse of some other tasty morsel. That was how Ralph Meier was regarding my wife’s body: as if it was something edible, something that made his mouth water.

When the book opens we know that Ralph is dead and that Marc has been accused of his murder through negligence. As he prepares to face the Board of Medical Examiners, the story rewinds to explain how events have lead to this dire predicament.

From this we learn that the previous summer Ralph had invited Marc and his family — his “tasty morsel” of a wife and their two daughters, Lisa, 11 and Julia, 13 — to stay with him at his “summer house with swimming pool” (hence the name of the novel). Initially, Marc does everything in his power not to stay at Ralph’s — the family camp nearby instead — but doesn’t want to appear rude by turning him down directly.

Eventually, when they do move in —thanks to Caroline’s insistence — they find themselves sharing the house with a cast of rather abhorrent characters, including an odious Hollywood producer called Stanley and his much younger girlfriend, Emmanuelle. They pass their days in the sun, swimming and drinking or visiting the local coastal resort. It all seems rather carefree, but there’s an undercurrent of sexual tension between all the adult couples — Marc finds himself attracted to Ralph’s wife, Judith, for instance — and there’s even a fledgling romance between Ralph’s son and Marc’s teenage daughter.

Eventually that tension spills over into something dark and dangerous, the outfall of which has long-lasting repercussions.

Moral codes

Fans of The Dinner will probably like this book very much. I’m not convinced it’s as accomplished or as well plotted, but it still features some of Koch’s trademarks: vile characters you can’t help but be intrigued by; a sneering, ethically dubious narrator; lots of unexpected “reveals” or twists as the story unfolds; and an examination of moral codes of conduct from almost every conceivable angle.

The pacing is a bit uneven — it took me a long time to get into and I almost abandoned it at the half way mark, but when it takes off it goes like a rocket. I was left breathless, not only by the lightning quick narrative, but by the turn of events, which are so unbelievably shocking I felt like I’d been run over by a truck.

All of the male characters, including the unethical narrator, are self-centred and loathsome. The women, by contrast, are all quite normal, which I expect is a deliberate ploy by the author, seeing as the book explores in various different ways the ideas of sex, sexual attraction and misogyny. Ralph and Stanley are sexually repellent, yet seem to somehow attract the prettiest of women, for instance, and even Marc, who sees himself as a kind of protector of women (or at least he is very protective of his teenage daughter, Julia), is sexually attracted to a woman who is not his wife.

If nothing else, Summer House with Swimming Pool is a story about society’s double standards when it comes to the way women are regarded. But it’s also a dark analysis of modern morals and the consequences of acting on our most wanton desires. It’s not a light read, but it is a strange and compelling one.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Gabriel Weston, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘Dirty Work’ by Gabriel Weston

Dirty-work

Fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 192 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Gabriel Weston is a practising surgeon. Many of you may be familiar with her first book, Direct Red, which explored what it is like to be a surgeon, and went on to win the PEN/Ackerley Prize for autobiography in 2010. She sticks with the medical theme in her first novel, Dirty Work, which is a dark, oppressive tale about a doctor who makes a terrible mistake and then must face the consequences.

The kind of surgery no one talks about

From the opening line — “I have never seen so much blood” — this novel transports you directly into the fascinating world of surgery, where every decision (and incision) can make the difference between life and death.

But this is not the kind of surgery we normally talk about, for Nancy, the narrator of this story, is an “abortion provider” — she never calls herself an “abortionist” — and her career is not something she can freely mention in company without being shunned or condemned. Even fellow surgeons look down on her line of surgery, which is viewed as “dirty work”.

When she makes an error during a procedure, her world is turned upside down. She is investigated by a tribunal appointed by the General Medical Council to explain herself. If she is found to be negligent she will be struck off the register and unable to practise as a doctor again.

A novel in four parts

The book is structured around the four sessions of the tribunal (one a week for a month) — what happened in theatre; a psychiatric assessment; her recent performance as a doctor; and the verdict — but the narrative does not follow the cut and dried Q&A to which she is subjected. Instead, it ebbs and flows around Nancy’s memories — her childhood split between the USA and England, how she got into medicine, why she began providing abortions, the support she receives from her sister — which occur to her before, during and after each session.

This is a successful technique, because not only do you come to know Nancy very well and empathise with her predicament (it’s clear she is an excellent surgeon), you keep turning the pages because you want to know the verdict, which is delivered in the final pages of this short novel.

Compelling and claustrophobic read

I read this book on a four-hour plane journey and I have to say I was hooked from the start. It’s not a light or fun read though, because it covers such dark territory and there’s an oppressive atmosphere which resonates off the page.

While Dirty Work is told in a cold, detached manner, the author manages to make it incredibly moving in places. It’s an extraordinarily powerful novel for those prepared to read about a topic told in such a frank, forthright and often unnerving way.

But it’s real strength is the way in which it explores lots of issues and medical ethics and is able to show that nothing is black and white. This is not a book that examines the arguments for and against abortion; instead it looks at the mindset of those carrying them out. For instance, what makes a doctor want to become an abortionist? How do you rationalising saving life with terminating the unborn? And what kind of psychological impact, if any, does this kind of surgery have on those providing it?

For another take on this novel, please visit Jackie’s review at Farm Lane Books.