Title: Summer House with Swimming Pool
Author: Herman Koch
No. of Pages: 400
Genre: Psychological Fiction
Origins: Random House
Release Date: 3 June 2014
Bottom Line: Simply brilliant
“When a medical procedure goes horribly wrong and famous actor Ralph Meier winds up dead, Dr. Marc Schlosser needs to come up with some answers. After all, reputation is everything in this business. Personally, he’s not exactly upset that Ralph is gone, but as a high profile doctor to the stars, Marc can’t hide from the truth forever.
It all started the previous summer. Marc, his wife, and their two beautiful teenage daughters agreed to spend a week at the Meier’s extravagant summer home on the Mediterranean. Joined by Ralph and his striking wife Judith, her mother, and film director Stanley Forbes and his much younger girlfriend, the large group settles in for days of sunshine, wine tasting, and trips to the beach. But when a violent incident disrupts the idyll, darker motivations are revealed, and suddenly no one can be trusted. As the ultimate holiday soon turns into a nightmare, the circumstances surrounding Ralph’s later death begin to reveal the disturbing reality behind that summer’s tragedy.”
Thoughts: Mr. Koch excels at creating characters readers want to hate. His characters speak their mind, letting readers know exactly what they think of their fellow human beings. He shines the spotlight on their every personality flaw and takes pride in making them truly despicable people. However, they are also so real that readers cannot hate them. His characters act no differently than anyone else, just as they think things no one would ever dare say aloud. The key is that they internalize their general disgust or hatred of others, just as every other person in the world does. Readers only learn about these thoughts because of their unique position as an omniscient audience.
In Summer House with Swimming Pool, Mr. Koch throws in an added complication by playing on a reader’s sympathies. As he connects one piece of the puzzle to another, a reader’s opinions about the characters constantly change. His characters may be appalling in their thoughts and sometimes even their actions, but one never knows when a new piece of information may make those questionable thoughts or actions understandable and even acceptable. Not only does this serve the purpose of keeping a reader off-balance and incapable of predicting the direction of the story’s flow, but it adds to the considerable amount of tension and foreboding building upon each page.
The writing within Summer House with Swimming Pool is superb. Mr. Koch deftly weaves his story of a vacation that is essentially doomed before it even begins as one weaves the most delicate lace. It is the type of story readers instinctively know is not going to end well but how or why never becomes clear. He plays with the timing of his storytelling to build on that sense of foreboding, and readers can never truly fall into the narrative because of the tension. However, this only invites readers to reflect on Marc’s actions and put themselves into his shoes as they actively wonder just what they would do if in his situation. This type of active reading does nothing to diminish the powerful story of appearances and reality, of innocence lost, and family bonds.
As a study of human nature, it does not get much better than Summer House with Swimming Pool. His characters cross the spectrum of human behaviors and attitudes, with every thought and action a direct consequence of their reactions to each other. It spectacularly shows the intricate culpability an entire group can have on a series of events as well as the degrees of subtlety involved in manipulating others, something readers experience firsthand as their opinions of the happenings and of the characters change page by page. It is quite simply a brilliant piece of literary fiction.