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, Charlotte Grimshaw, Fiction, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, New Zealand, Publisher, Setting

‘Soon’ by Charlotte Grimshaw

Soon

Fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 320 pages; 2013.

Charlotte Grimshaw is a lawyer-turned-writer from New Zealand with quite an extensive back catalogue to her name, but until Soon was published in the UK last year I had never heard of her.

The novel, which has reputedly been on the “bestseller list in New Zealand every week since publication there”, turned out to be a real “find”. It was such a delicious and powerful read that I’ve promptly ordered several more of Grimshaw’s novels and will look forward to reading them in due course.

Not your average summer holiday

Soon takes a time-worn, almost clichéd setting — that of a summer holiday where two lots of people happily coexist until a new person enters the scene to disturb the equilibrium — but gives it several refreshing (and dark) twists.

The first is that this is no usual set of holidaymakers — it’s the Prime Minister of New Zealand, David Hallwright, no less, and he’s spending his summer in a three-storey house by the coast with the people he holds dearest: his trophy wife, Roza, and their five-year-old son, Johnnie; his best friend Simon Lampton, who is a doctor, Simon’s wife Karen and their teenage children, Claire, Elke and Marcus; the Minister of Police, Ed Miles, and his wife Juliet; and his deputy, known as “The Cock”, and his vacuous wife Sharon.

The second is that there is a bit of a power play going on — and not in the way you might suspect. Although David and Simon are friends (“What I like about you is that you’re not political. Your mind’s on other things. That’s so refreshing to me”), they are connected in another, quite unusual, way:

When he married her, David’s second wife Roza had been keeping a secret. It was not a sensational one, as secrets go: aged sixteen, she had given birth to a baby and adopted her out. Eight years later, after the adoption and a number of foster placings had failed, the girl, Elke, had been adopted by Dr Simon Lampton and his wife Karen. In the following years, the Lamptons had come to love Elke as their own. But just before David Hallwright had been elected Prime Minister, Roza had located the child, and had introduced herself to the Lamptons (and revealed herself to David) as the birth mother.

The two mothers are now best friends — or so everyone thinks — and the two families have become close because of their shared love for Elke, who has grown into a rather beautiful, self-confident young woman. But Elke is now preparing to leave home for the first time to go to university and Karen is anxious that she will be lost to them forever. It doesn’t help that the Hallwrights are pushing Elke to come and live with them.

So before the events of the novel really get underway, Grimshaw has introduced a simmering tension between these two supposedly close families. But that’s just the half of it.

Extra twists

Additionally, there are two pivotal moments in this book that raise the tension — and the stakes — even higher.

Simon receives an unexpected phone call from a journalist researching the disappearance of a Greek-Maori woman called Mereana Kostas, the same woman that Simon once had a secret affair with. And then Simon’s older brother Ford turns up to disturb the relative peace and quiet of the holidaymakers: he’s vehemently opposed to the right-wing Government and isn’t afraid to speak his mind about the less than fair policies it has adopted.

Things really come to a head when a crime is committed, but to say any more would give the game away…

A tense read

Soon, if you haven’t guessed already, is a novel brimming with all kinds of anxieties and strains. This is mirrored in the relations between the characters, which are all very complicated and messy. There’s an interesting sub-plot between Simon and Roza, which revolves around whether they will act on their sexual attraction to one another, and another between Simon and the journalist as to whether his affair will be exposed to the world.

It’s testament to Grimshaw’s skill as a writer that she makes the reader want to keep turning the pages despite most of these characters, perhaps with the exception of Simon, being hugely unlikable. (Think The Slap but set in New Zealand.) The way in which she juggles multiple storylines between this mish-mash of characters is superb, too, so that as a reader I was constantly surprised by the unfolding of events.

Unfortunately, there was one element that I think didn’t work. This involves Roza narrating a rather menacing story to Johnnie about a badly behaved character called Soon. This has uncanny parallels to events happening in the real world, but I felt this merely got in the way of the rest of the narrative. That’s a minor quibble, however.

Politics in action

Perhaps the thing I liked most about this exhilarating novel (and exhilarating is exactly the right word to describe it because it often left me feeling breathless and on edge) is the glimpse it provides, not only of modern New Zealand society, in which the gap between rich and poor has widened, but the people in power who have helped create it.

And while I’m not a fan of political novels, per se, I found much to enjoy in this one. Despite there being an unwritten rule that house guests cannot talk politics (they’re on holiday after all), there are several eye-opening conversations between the PM and his minsters about how his party should go about winning the next election that make you realise just how cynical, manipulative and immoral modern politicians have become.

Soon is a rather seductive novel, in all senses of the word. It draws you in to a closed, protected world and shows people acting at their most primal. It’s a literary page-turner of the finest order, one that is deliciously dark, atmospheric and deeply unsettling. I won’t forget it in a hurry.