A very dark summer house: Herman Koch’s latest, reviewed

Summer House

The healthcare system can be a jarring place, full of confusion and doubt – the insurance, the billing, the helplessness we often feel when we’re injured or ill and have to leave our bodily repair to another person. I hate watching doctors fill out forms hidden behind clipboards, or that antsy, purgatory-esque feeling I get while sitting in the waiting room – even the questions about my health, my habits, my diet, my penchant for a daily after-work beer leave me unnerved.

But in all my worries about a visit to the doctor, I have never had the fear that the person examining me might be choking back their disgust at having to look at me in their waiting room. And yet, that is exactly the protagonist we encounter in Herman Koch’s newest novel, Summer House with Swimming Pool.

Dr. Marc Schlosser is a successful general practitioner who has developed a reputation as a caring and thorough doctor, one who allows his patients extra time and attention in his office, and won’t shame them about their overindulgence in wine or cigarettes. But perhaps his greatest success is hiding the total disgust he feels for the patients who walk through his door every day:

“I do my best to act interested. Meanwhile, I doodle on a scrap of paper. I ask them to get up, to follow me to the examination room. Occasionally I’ll ask someone to undress behind the screen, but most of the time I don’t. Human bodies are horrible enough as it is, even with their clothes on. I don’t want to see them, those parts where the sun never shines. Not the folds of fat in which it is always too warm and the bacteria have free rein, not the fungal growths and infections between the toes, beneath the nails, not the fingers that scratch here, the fingers that rub there until it starts to bleed…Here, Doctor, here’s where it itches really badly … No, I don’t want to see. I pretend to look, but I’m thinking about something else.”

It’s a humorous take, but Schlosser is a chilling protagonist, a man respected professionally and admired for his beautiful family, yet filled with a clear loathing for humanity. There’s something truly disturbing about your neighborhood doctor dreaming of your demise as he checks you for new moles. He’s one of the few protagonists I have ever encountered whom I felt I couldn’t picture physically, I couldn’t imagine how he looked or dressed – despite some fleeting references to his good looks – but that isn’t due to a lack of writing or character development on Koch’s part; it’s simply that Schlosser had hidden so many parts of his life and person from even those closest to him, that he’s become something of an enigma. His lifestyle seems unsustainable – how has he continued to deal with the patients he despises – so it’s hardly a surprise that the opening of the book reveals that all is not exactly well. Dr. Schlosser is being investigated for the death of one of his patients, the famous actor Ralph Meier.

Meier befriended the doctor, inviting him to parties and eventually to his family’s summer home. Schlosser – however – is more interested in Meier’s wife, Judith, and begins a scheme to bring his two daughters and wife along for a seemingly innocent vacation weekend with Meier’s family, and a visiting director and his model girlfriend. Like many of his previous books, the male characters that populate Summer House are all reprehensible – Schlosser is obsessed with Meier’s wandering eye and inappropriate advances on his daughters and the director’s relationship with a very young girl is cringe-worthy. But the real horror begins when a tragedy befalls one of the house guests and Schlosser’s attempts to keep his feelings toward Judith lead to the worst betrayals of all. Yet all of this plays out below the surface of seemingly calm waters – afternoons lounging by the pool and dinners of freshly caught seafood. And Koch keeps you on edge, saving his reveal for the very end.

Koch’s mastery – and the thing that makes this novel such a great read – lies in his ability to approach deceit and cruelty and horror with an even tone. Schlosser himself is the epitome of a professional family man, and yet his inner life is so dark, it’s a wonder he can move through the daily machinations of life. Of course he does just that and so do all of the other characters who fall under suspicion. They drink their coffee, they make small talk, they laugh. Koch has a way of normalizing the vilest of acts and it’s that cool approach that both chilled and engrossed me. It’s always the things lurking underneath the mundane that are the scariest – even lighthearted adolescent love isn’t safe from Koch’s scheming plot.

Summer House is a certainly a great beach read – it’s gripping and quick, and smarter than your average summer novel – but it’s certainly no lighthearted affair. And it’s certain to make you even more squeamish the next time you find yourself in a doctor’s waiting room.