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.

Afghanistan, Atiq Rahimi, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Patience Stone’ by Atiq Rahimi

The Patience Stone
Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 136 pages; 2009. Translated from the French by Polly McLean.

If you want to read an important book about the subjugation of women, then put Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone on the top of your list. This novella, first published in France in 2008, won the Goncourt Prize that same year. It’s a rather shocking and deeply affecting read, and I know it will stay with me for a long time to come.

A bedroom confession

The Patience Stone is set in a single room in a war-torn city in Afghanistan. Outside, gun fire and explosions can be heard, along with the hurried footfalls of men carrying weapons, but inside the room it is largely quiet.

The room is small. Rectangular. Stifling, despite the paleness of the turquoise walls, and the two curtains patterned with migrating birds frozen mid-flight against a yellow and blue sky. Holes in the curtains allow the rays of the sun to reach the faded stripes of a kilim. At the far end of the room is another curtain. Green. Unpatterned. Concealing a disused door. Or an alcove.

In this room there is a man and a woman: the man is in a coma, with a bullet in his neck, and he is lying on his back under a dirty white sheet, his gaze fixed on the ceiling; the woman — his wife — sits beside him, feeding him through a tube, lubricating his eyes with drops and all the while praying for his recovery.

When the unnamed woman is not praying, she fills the time and the silence by talking to her husband — she treats him like a “patience stone” to which you:

“…tell all your problems to, all your struggles, all your pain, all your woes… to which you confess everything in your heart, everything you don’t dare tell anyone. You talk to it, and talk to it. And the stone listens, absorbing all your words, all your secrets, until one fine day it explodes. Shatters into tiny pieces.”

And what a confession this woman makes. Initially her voice is timid and afraid  — “Don’t abandon me, you’re all I have left” — but it grows increasingly angry as she comes to terms with the fact that the pair have been abandoned by her husband’s family. Only her aunt, an outcast herself, has stood by her and helps looks after the couple’s two young daughters.

But as the story progresses, this rage is then turned towards her husband, as she recalls their life together — the first three years of their arranged marriage were spent apart while he fought in the war — and the ways in which he has abused her — sexually, physically and emotionally — ever since their marriage was consummated.

Women as second-class citizens

On the whole, the woman’s tale is largely a sexual confession, where her needs have been wholly subjugated by her husband’s desires. She rails against the way she has been treated as nothing more than an object for her husband’s sexual gratification, then made to feel dirty and whore-like for daring to menstruate.

Her bold revelations might be heart-breaking, painful and courageous — they get increasingly more fevered and explosive as the story progresses, she’s definitely no puritan and there are hints she’s becoming unhinged — but they give voice to millions of women who have suffered at the hands of male brutality and patriarchal tribal customs throughout the centuries.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that what goes on in this room between the silent man and the uncensored woman is a microcosm of society in Afghanistan today, where women are second-class citizens, denied basic rights to education, health care and personal independence. For that reason, reading this novella filled me with a slow-burning fury, not dissimilar to the reaction I had when I read The Bookseller of Kabul in 2005.

A confronting read

There’s no doubt that The Patience Stone  shines a light on some confronting and challenging truths — about war, religion, men, sex and misogyny — but it’s done in a rather understated way.

Its gentle, stripped-back prose is possessed of astonishing power, perhaps because it reads like a play, complete with stage directions — “In the street we hear someone shouting Halt! And then a gunshot. And footsteps, fleeing” — and a dramatic monologue. I kept thinking it would make a terrific film because it felt so visual and emotional — and then I discovered it was made into one last year:


I’m not sure I’ll be rushing to rent it, but it’s definitely gone on to my wish list. If it’s anything like the book, it will be compelling, intimate — and unforgettable.