Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A controversial psychological drama

Summer House with Swimming Pool

By Herman Koch

Publisher: Hogarth 

Pub. Date: June 3, 2014

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Dutch writer Herman Koch is one of those authors who write exquisite prose even if you feel you want to wash your hands after reading it. His characters are far from perfect and border between very imperfect and downright sleazy. Yet they wander amongst the privileged crowd; artist, doctors, producers who exude a shallow tide of civilization along with the well-hidden skeletons. Whatever your opinion of the uncomfortable topic which is slowly revealed in the novel, Koch's prose reels you in and immerses you into the plot like sirens off the shore.

Our narrator is general practitioner Dr. Marc Schlosser, who tends to an elite bunch of celebrities despite his cynicism and partially due to his generosity with prescriptions. We find out early in the book that he is being suspected of medical malpractice allegedly contributing to the death of a famous actor named Ralph Meier. Marc, the epitome of the unreliable narrator, takes us back to the beginning of Ralph and Marc's acquaintance. Friendship is too strong a word as we learn of the doctor's cynical view of his patients and human nature in general. Marc and his family, which includes two young daughters, are invited to the Meier's summer house and he becomes suspicious of Ralph's intention with his wife and daughters, a suspicion which is complicated by Marc's own infatuation with Ralph's wife, Judith.

There are few places where the phrase, "what a tangled web we weave" is so well practiced. Much of the delicious tension in this book is fueled not by action but by the complex thoughts and feelings our unreliable narrator places in his tale. We see everything from his perceptive. He is a very flawed protagonist but so is everyone else in the book. As we learn about the past events, we wonder many things. Who is responsible for the crime? (a crime which I won't reveal and hopefully you did not read the book's promo blurbs which shamelessly gives it and other things away too early) Was Dr. Schlosser's malpractice one of neglect or murder? Eventually we find these things out but I believe the author's focus isn't on the answers but on bigger questions such as why we as human beings work so hard to do the very things that make our lives so miserable. In Koch's world, good intentions are not paved with gold but with quicksand.

I've heard great things about Koch's debut novel, The Dinner. I have not read it but based on this second novel, Herman Koch seems to be a literary force to deal with. Credit should also go to the superb translation by Sam Garrett which appears to catch all the complexity of this involving novel.

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